BOSTON -- With just four days before their regular season opener in New York City, the Boston Celtics made the most of their final preseason game with a 81-73 victory over the Toronto Raptors.
Paul Pierce (right heel) did not play and Sasha Pavlovic got the start in his place.
Rajon Rondo, often criticized for his offensive game, had the hot hand in the first quarter. He scored 10 points in eight minutes, shooting 4-for-5 from the field and making a pair of free throws. The Cs led 22-13 after the first 12 minutes.
The Celtics got a good look at Greg Steimsma in the second quarter. The big man played all but 20 seconds, scoring seven points and making hustle plays. DeMar DeRozan scored half of the Raptors 18 second-quarter points, but his efforts were not enough to get his team back in it. At halftime, the Celtics held a 47-31 lead.
But with the starters on the bench, the Celtics reserves struggled to stay consistent in the third quarter. The Raptors outscored the Cs, 22-20.
When it came down to the final quarter, a young Celtics group held off for the win. Avery Bradley, ETwaun Moore, Gilbert Brown, JaJuan Johnson, Jamal Sampson, and Steimsma all saw playing time, while veteran journeyman Michael Sweetney scored a crowd-pleasing basket.
Andrea Bargnani led all players with 20 points (7-17 FG, 68 FT) while Rondo led the Celtics with 17 points (6-10 FG, 5-6 FT) and six assists. Brandon Bass and Moore combined for 23 points off the bench.
The Celtics finished preseason action 2-0 with both wins coming against the Raptors. They will face the Knicks on Christmas Day at Madison Square Garden.
CLEVELAND -- Marcus Smart sat at his locker stall late Sunday night, soaking in the moment for all it was worth.
The Celtics were just minutes removed from one of the biggest playoff upsets ever, knocking off Cleveland, 111-108, a game in which Boston was a 16.5-point underdog.
Smart’s play had a lot to do with the win as he scored a career-high 27 points, which included a career-best seven made 3-pointers.
But this win was about more than Smart having the game of his life.
It was about opportunity, an unspoken rallying cry that has galvanized this Celtics team through what has been a season in which they defied the odds and naysayers time and time again.
Boston was supposed to be pretty good this season, but no one predicted the C's would finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Isaiah Thomas had a breakout year in 2015-16, but few anticipated he would be even better while putting up numbers that rank among the greatest single seasons in the storied franchise’s illustrious history.
Then Thomas goes down with a right hip injury that will keep him out of the remainder of the playoffs, and the Celtics hit the road while trailing the defending champion Cavaliers 2-0.
So what do they do? Oh, not much.
They just come up with the most epic playoff comeback win ever against a LeBron James-led team.
You can dissect what happened Sunday night all you want, but in the end, it came down to one thing: Opportunity.
Which is why Boston’s Game 3 win was so sweet. And for those of us who have followed the ups and downs of this team this season recognized it was another example of the Celtics making the most of their opportunity to shock the world.
Look no further than Smart, a gritty physical defender whose shot-making isn’t exactly top-10 worthy.
No, I’m not talking about top 10 in the NBA. I’m talking top 10 on his team.
And yet there he was, delivering his usual strong play defensively while channeling his inner Isaiah Thomas to get big-time buckets in the second half, which included 11 points during a 26-10 run to close out the third and bring Boston within 87-82 going into the fourth.
With the surge came more opportunities for other Celtics like Kelly Olynyk, who gets the superstar treatment in Cleveland with more boos than any other Boston player. (They have not forgotten about that Olynyk-Kevin Love incident a couple years ago, apparently.)
Olynyk soaked in the boos while coming off the bench to splash the Cavs defense for 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting.
“Keep fighting, keep fighting,” Olynyk told me when I asked him about what Game 3’s win says about this team. “You can knock us down but we’ll keep getting back up. That’s what we did out there.”
The Celtics had their moment on Sunday night, reminding us just how tough-minded a bunch they can be when they are boxed in a corner and left with two choices: Fight or face inevitable elimination.
Because had they lost Game 3, they would have been down 3-0 in the series. And no one needs reminding that no NBA team has ever come back from an 0-3 playoff deficit.
Fortunately for them, that’s no longer an option.
Instead, they have a chance to even this series up and regain home court advantage if they can win Game 4, which, much like Game 3, seems a long shot.
They don’t care.
It has never been about being the favorite or underdog. It’s about the opportunity, something the Celtics gave themselves with Sunday’s win.
CLEVELAND -- The Celtics' shocking 111-108, Game 3 victory over the Cavs on Sunday has clearly changed the narrative of the Eastern Conference finals. (Those sweep references? Delete, delete, delete.)
CELTICS 111, CAVS 108
But the Celtic players aren't changing their narrative:
Us against the world.
“Everybody in this locker room on this team has been told we couldn’t do something or had somebody that really didn’t believe in us,” said Marcus Smart, who stepped in for the injured Isaiah Thomas and finished with a playoff career-high 27 points. “We just kind of put that together all in one, and we just . . . told each other no matter what happens we’ve got to be the hardest-playing team. We just have to go out there and play.”
And play they did.
"We decided were going to go out and play hard, swinging." said Avery Bradley, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer with less than a second left. "We never counted ourselves out."
"We have guys who have chips on their shoulders," said coach Brad Stevens. "We knew that Friday (their 130-86 Game 2 loss at TD Garden) was a disaster. But [that game] wasn't worth [four losses]. It was worth one. So we got back together."
As good as they feel about themselves right now, the Celtics are well aware that Game 4 will likely see a more aggressive showing by LeBron James and a Cavaliers team that will be much more locked into their its assignments than it was in Game 3.
That’s okay. Boston knew finding success in Cleveland wasn’t going to be easy . . . or pretty.
“It hasn’t been pretty, but I don’t think this is a team is a pretty team,” Celtics wing Jaylen Brown told CSNNE.com. “We just kind of get it done.”
And that mindset should serve them well in what should be another tough and rugged matchup in Game 4 on Tuesday.
“We’re happy and excited, but we didn’t come to just win one game,” Brown said. “We came to win two.”