The Celtics claimed a 117-113 victory over the Cavaliers on Wednesday behind big evenings by both Jayson Tatum and Al Horford.
Here are the takeaways.
- Tatum topped 40 points once again with 41 on 13-for-21 shooting, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range as well as 11-for-14 at the free-throw line. To an extent, he can thank Darius Garland, whose flurry of 3-pointers in the final minute kept the game just competitive enough to justify leaving him on the floor. It also made the Cavaliers foul, which gave Tatum a chance to make a pair of free throws after a 1-for-2 trip to the line prior left him stuck at 39.
The big scoring performance showed some progress after Tatum struggled in consecutive games since the All-Star break.
“Just got some easy ones early,” Tatum said. “A layup in transition, getting downhill finishing at the basket, it just kind of opens things up. It’s not like I was discouraged or worried because I hadn’t shot the ball that great coming out of the break. Just came here with a mindset trying to find a way to win.”
Tatum passed Giannis Antetokounmpo for seventh all-time in points scored before a player turns 25, which is the highest he will climb on that particular list since Friday is his 25th birthday.
- Reporters after the game queried Tatum and Mazzulla about the star’s minutes, which have been a concern this season given his usage last year. Tatum admitted that he understands and respects the sports science statistics which suggest he needs to rest, but he wants to play too much to sit out.
“The organization, Brad, sometimes wants me to play a little bit less, so we have conversations,” Tatum said. “It’s as simple as I just love being out there, I love playing, I love competing, I love trying to win as much as I can.”
Tatum, of course, is not the only star who tries to stay on the court when he team wants him to rest. The Celtics may need to take a firm stance if trainers believe Tatum could use some time off the floor.
Mazzulla did change Tatum’s substitution patterns, giving him three stints off the floor instead of two. Tatum only played 35 minutes, which is below his season-average of 37.3.
“When we’re healthy, just finding small ways to get a different lineup to just create a different rhythm, change his matchups when he’s out there on the offensive end,” Mazzulla said. “Change who he plays with, change who Jaylen plays with.”
- Al Horford had one of his best games of the season, shooting 8-for-10 from the field and 6-for-8 from behind the arc. Several of his triples helped stop various Cavaliers runs in their tracks.
“I think after my second or third three I was like, ‘Man, it feels pretty good,’” Horford said. “And at that point you just try to stay with it and take advantage of those opportunities.”
Horford, who is shooting a healthy 43 percent from 3-point range this season, is taking more triples than ever — 65 percent of his shots come from behind the arc, which places him in the 98th percentile for his position league-wide. Prior to this season, 3-pointers had never made up more than 44 percent of his shots.
“He’s constantly trying to find small ways to reinvent his game,” Joe Mazzulla said. “What he does, you can’t even put into words what he is for our team.”
- Robert Williams looked a little bouncier and more like himself in 30 minutes. Three of his four field goals were alley-oops, and he finished 4-for-4 with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
A reporter asked Williams if Wednesday was the best he has felt in a while.
“Yeah, starting to play some more minutes, get a little more conditioning under me,” Williams said. “I think I cracked like 30 the other night, so hopefully keep it rolling.”
- The Celtics won a crucial coach’s challenge in the fourth quarter leading by 13. Marcus Smart was whistled for a foul with 4:40 left on the clock as he and Donovan Mitchell battled for a rebound, but Mazzulla called timeout and issued the challenge, which was successful. The challenge wiped away possession for the Cavaliers and a foul on Smart, and on the ensuing possession, Tatum buried a 3-pointer to push the lead back up to 16.
- Grant Williams, who has struggled recently, received a DNP-CD on Wednesday. Mike Muscala played in his place and shot 0-for-3 from the field.
When Mazzulla was asked about Grant’s lack of time on the floor, he simply said “matchups” and left it at that until a second reporter asked for a follow-up.
“Just matchups on the offensive end, as far as spacing the floor and having rim protection,” Mazzulla said. “And so when Mike was in, we were able to play a different defensive lineup. Didn’t want to switch these guys as much in that second unit. And so they played, because of their sub pattern, we went with a bigger, we were able to stay in 13 a little bit more and not switch that second unit, which is big for us.”
Williams’s teammates generally treat him like a little brother, but they struck a more sympathetic tone on Wednesday.
“He knows what he brings to this team and the type of player he is,” Jaylen Brown said. “He’s been able to carve value out in this league, so a couple games here and there based upon whatever the coaching staff thinks doesn’t mean any more or less. Grant has helped us win playoff games. Grant has helped us get to the Finals last year. So obviously, we’re going to need him.
“So keep his head, he’s going to be all right. He’s a professional, so we’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
- The Celtics started the third quarter on an important 7-0 run which dug the Cavaliers a double-digit deficit they tried to climb out of for the rest of the night. That run was sparked by the double-big starting lineup that dominated last year but has struggled at times this season.
“We’ve been comfortable with each other,” Robert Williams said. “We’ve just got to get back in a rhythm a little bit. Like riding a bike. Play a couple more games and we chilling. Get them under our belt and figure out how we can bring the energy for the whole team.”
Still, that lineup hasn’t been nearly as effective this season in what is admittedly a much smaller sample size of 121 possessions. Smart, Williams, Brown, Tatum and Horford have been outscored by 16.7 points per 100 possessions, which places them in the 10th percentile league-wide.
“It’s a new year, but when we’re all on the same page, we’re all healthy, I feel like we’ve got a good chance to win any ballgame,” Brown said. “So I think the focus is just being healthy, taking care of your body, and just coming out and playing games. Getting chemistry, but building the right habits. I think that’s important, especially moving toward the playoffs, just have to keep moving and building the right habits.”
The Celtics face the Nets at home on Friday at 7:30 p.m.