Celtics fend off Cavs to make third straight ECF



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BOSTON — The Celtics were heavily favored to beat the Cavaliers even before Cleveland had three of its top six players — including star guard Donovan Mitchell — missing for Game 5 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series Wednesday night.

And yet, despite that, Boston found itself in a one-possession game early in the fourth quarter — staring down the possibility of yet another painful loss on its home court in the postseason, an all-too-familiar scenario here in recent years.

“Close-out games are tough. It’s a level of stress, anxiety, desperation; it takes what it takes,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “You gotta play 48 — hopefully, maybe more at times.

“And at the end of the day, you just gotta keep going … continue to chip away at the things you can control.”

That’s what the Celtics did. Led by 25 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists from Jayson Tatum, plus a motivational performance from the team’s oldest player, Al Horford, Boston escaped with a 113-98 victory — and, with it, a trip to the Eastern Conference finals for the third straight season, and the sixth time in the past eight years.

Boston now awaits the winner of the other Eastern Conference semifinal between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, which New York leads 3-2 heading into Friday’s Game 6 in Indianapolis, with the conference finals set to begin at TD Garden either Sunday afternoon or Tuesday night.

“It just shows the character of the team, the organization,” Tatum said of Boston advancing to the conference finals for the fifth time in his seven NBA seasons. “People might think that it’s a given that we’re supposed to be here, but I give a lot of credit to everyone in the front office, the coaching staff, the trainers, the guys that hand out the equipment, the ball boys, the cooks, the chefs, the security team. We’re all in this together. I do, I mean that.

“Everybody has an effect on each other, and we all impact each other to help winning and build this culture that we have. Everybody should be proud of themselves. Obviously, it’s not the end all, be all. We wanna win a championship, but we’re doing something right.”

For much of the first half Wednesday night, however, it looked like that might not be the case, despite Cleveland playing without Mitchell (left calf strain); guard Caris LeVert (left knee bone bruise), Mitchell’s replacement in the starting lineup in Game 4; and starting center Jarrett Allen, who missed his eighth straight game with a bruised rib.

Cleveland led for chunks of the first half — mainly behind a red-hot shooting performance from former Celtic Marcus Morris Sr., who had 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the opening 24 minutes — before Boston eventually took a 58-52 lead into halftime.

It was the latest example of how the Celtics have played wildly differently at home compared to on the road over the past few playoffs. Entering Wednesday’s action, Boston had gone 14-14 at TD Garden since the start of the 2022 playoffs — the most games played (28) without a winning record at home over three postseasons in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That includes dropping Game 2 of both Boston’s first-round series against the Miami Heat and this series against Cleveland despite both opponents missing key contributors because of injuries.

Eventually, though, Boston was able to get some traction after that slow start — and inject some energy into its home crowd — behind several hustle plays from Horford, who is just a couple of weeks shy of his 38th birthday and in the middle of his 17th NBA season. After shooting 4-for-22 from 3-point range over the first four games of the series, including 0-for-10 in the two games in Cleveland, Horford hit six in Game 5, and he repeatedly kept plays alive with his energy.

“It feels great because we won,” said Horford, who finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in 35 minutes. “That’s the only satisfaction I get out of it.

“But I’m happy because I was able to help the team win this game. We have to give Cleveland credit. They were depleted and they just did not quit. They really pushed us to the brink.”

The Cavaliers certainly did that, thanks to the best offensive game in the young playoff career of third-year big man Evan Mobley, who had 33 points on 15-for-24 shooting in 43 minutes in Allen’s absence. Morris, meanwhile, finished with 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting, including 5-for-6 from 3-point range.

But Boston — including Horford — shut down Cavaliers guard Darius Garland, holding him to 11 points on 4-for-17 shooting after he went for 30 in Game 4 in Mitchell’s absence, with the veteran big man getting switched onto him several times in the fourth quarter and preventing the smaller, quicker guard from scoring.

Boston’s sheer edge in talent eventually allowed the Celtics to wear the Cavaliers out and pull away down the stretch. And, after Horford was pulled in the closing moments to a massive ovation, he and the Celtics were officially off to yet another trip to the conference finals.

“Joe talked about us taking the challenge defensively, individually, and this was one of those nights that we had to — as a man, we had to look in the mirror and step up and try to do our best,” Horford said of the challenge of slowing Garland down late in the game. “And for me, it was just trying to do whatever I could and use my lengths and just staying solid, and just continuing to take on that challenge time after time.”



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