8 takeaways as Al Horford’s return helped Celtics pull away from Cavaliers late

The Celtics bounced back from Saturday's embarrassing loss with a hard-fought win.

Cavaliers Celtics takeaways
Boston Celtics' Marcus Smart drives between Cleveland Cavaliers' Cedi Osman and Darius Garland. AP Photo/Tony Dejak

Here are the takeaways as the Celtics outlasted the Cavaliers 98-92 in a rematch of Saturday’s debacle.

1. Jayson Tatum still struggled from the floor (7-for-20 with 23 points), but he played a better brand of basketball with seven free throws and five assists. The Celtics took him off the ball late, and his presence opened up the floor a bit for his teammates.

“Credit to him, he kept attacking, drew a crowd, got rid of it, and then actually got to the basket a few times and got some fouls,” Udoka said. “So it wasn’t falling, he had to do different things, but to get to the line seven times when he’s not shooting the best is a credit to him and figuring out how to get it done another way.”


When asked about his shooting struggles after the game, Tatum himself seemed to be at a loss for words, but he expressed confidence in his ability to turn things around.

“It’s going to come,” he said. “I haven’t doubted myself, not once. Neither have my teammates, neither have my opponents. They still guard me closely, they don’t leave me, they don’t help because they know what I’m capable of.

“But just have to keep working at it, keep watching film, have to keep shooting. I’ll figure it out. In the meantime, just keep trying to find ways to help us win games.”

Just 16.4 percent of Tatum’s offense this season has come as the pick-and-roll ball-handler per the NBA’s stats, down significantly from last season (27.8 percent). Pick-and-roll opportunities are an easy way to get the ball going downhill, and Tatum looks like he could use a little more simplicity in his game.

2. Al Horford made a world of difference on both ends — a steadying offensive presence (17 points, 7-for-10 shooting, 3-for-4 from 3) who also helped the Celtics keep Evan Mobley in check (one point, 0-for-11 from the field). Horford’s ability to switch was also crucial on the defensive end, particularly after Robert Williams went out in the second half with knee soreness.


Down the stretch, meanwhile, the Celtics ran a heavy dose of pick-and-roll action between Dennis Schröder and Horford, and Horford played both a primary and secondary role — scoring a layup out of the pick-and-roll and freeing Schröder going to the rim.

The Celtics are a lot better when their big rotation is healthy — Enes Kanter played late, and his minutes were a very mixed bag.

3. Ime Udoka gave a mildly concerning health update when asked about Williams.

“Rob felt some soreness in the second quarter,” Udoka said. “Not sure if he did something specific to it, but it was pretty tight at halftime and felt a sharp pain, so we kept him out. We’ll see when he gets tested and looked at how fine he’ll be.”

Again: The Celtics can’t afford many injuries to their bigs. Williams’ health will be important to monitor.

4. Aaron Nesmith played 11 minutes, but he was on the floor getting shots up after the game.

When asked about Kanter’s post on social media that seemed to suggest he was upset about minutes, Udoka mentioned that several good players were growing “antsy” with a lack of minutes. Left unsaid was whether Kanter is one of those good players, but presumably Nesmith and Payton Prichard both are.


5. Tacko Fall played eight minutes for the Cavaliers and grabbed a pair of rebounds. Mike Gorman noted on the NBC Sports Boston broadcast that J.B. Bickerstaff believes there is a place for Fall in the league, as the Cavaliers emphasized funneling defenders toward Fall in the paint.

The Cavaliers have a lot of size, but with Jarrett Allen out, they went to Fall as part of the big rotation. Here’s hoping that’s a good sign for continued minutes.

6. A quick glance at Horford’s shot chart is surprisingly informative as to where he should be shooting from behind the arc.

Top of the key is good. Above the break (left) is fine. Right corner looks good. Above the break (right) is a disaster. Sure enough, on Monday, Horford hit two kick-outs from the top of the key and one that rattled in from the right corner. His one miss was an airball from his toughest zone.

“I feel very comfortable shooting those above the break threes,” Horford said. “In the past that’s where my shot is come from, and it was good to get those looks and good for those shots to fall.”

7. Grant Williams, who was 3-for-6 from 3-point range, has similarly start numbers (if only because there is one zone he simply should stop shooting from).

Like Horford, Williams was predictably bad from his cold zone — two of his three misses were above the break on the left. He canned a pair of corner 3s and one above the break on the right.


8. The game felt tenuous in the closing minutes — whenever the Celtics threatened to pull away, the Cavaliers came roaring back. Schröder kept the Cavaliers at bay — he poured in six points in the final 1:20 and connected on a pick-and-roll with Horford when the Cavaliers were within one.

“I think it’s good to have [Schröder],” Horford said. “As a team, we have to have different options. You can’t be predictable in one thing, and I feel with this group we have that ability, whether it’s Marcus playing in the pick-and-roll or whether it’s Dennis or Jayson or Jaylen. We have many different guys that we can get in an action or do different things. The more we do that, the more unpredictable we are.”

In the absence of Jaylen Brown — who missed Monday’s game as he continues to rehab his hamstring — the most consistent Celtics offensively have been Schröder and Horford, not Jayson Tatum.

2021-22 might be an odd season.

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