The Celtics keep finding ways to win without Kyrie Irving.
Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart each scored 21 points, and Boston (44-31) broke away from a fourth-quarter tie to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 116-106 on Tuesday night, formally clinching a playoff berth with Detroit lost in Denver minutes later.
Irving (rest) didn’t play, yet Boston snapped a four-game losing streak and improved to 11-2 without its leading scorer. The Celtics let a 12-point lead slip away but took over after the Cavaliers tied the game early in the final period.
“We responded the right way and we answered every run of theirs,” said Al Horford, who had 19 points, including eight in the fourth quarter and the go-ahead layup. “Obviously, we weren’t perfect, but I was happy with the focus tonight.”
The Celtics ended the game with a 24-14 run also sparked by three-point plays from Smart and Marcus Morris, who came off the bench for the first since since Nov. 21, to pull away.
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Collin Sexton led Cleveland with 24 points and Jordan Clarkson scored 18.
Cleveland trailed 82-70 late in the third quarter, but Sexton scored nine points and Marquese Chriss’ 3-pointer tied the game at 92 with 9 minutes to play. Boston seized back the momentum. Horford had a basket in the lane and Gordon Hayward scored on a layup off a turnover. Horford’s 3-pointer pushed the lead to 100-94.
“I felt like when we tied it, they scored and the energy left the building a little bit,” Sexton said.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens also thought his team’s quick response was crucial.
“When Marquese Chriss made that 3 to tie the score, we came right back down to Al,” Stevens said. “Al going down the court within 5 seconds of Chriss’ 3 really helps you get right back at them.”
Tatum returned after missing Sunday’s loss to San Antonio because of a bruised back and scored all his points in the first half. Horford missed the two previous games with a sore left knee.
Irving played his first six seasons with Cleveland. The six-time All-Star demanded a trade following the 2016-17 season and was dealt to Boston. He hasn’t played in Cleveland since the 2017-18 opener.
Hayward had 15 points and Morris added 14. Terry Rozier, a Northeast Ohio native who played high school basketball in suburban Shaker Heights, scored 11 points.
Kevin Love entered 27 points short of 12,000 in his career. He scored 10 points and had 11 rebounds, but was scoreless at halftime and finished 3 of 13 from the field.
“In the first half I didn’t give the guys what I should have,” Love said. “I have to bring it every single night for the entire game.”
The arena’s Humungotron went out late in the first quarter, forcing the teams and fans to use the upper-corner scoreboards to keep track of things. The video and numbers returned soon after halftime and drew a loud ovation from the crowd.