Celtics shamrocked by Cavaliers, 117-110

The Celtics have fallen back to what they clearly are — a .500 team, maybe good enough to make the playoffs, possibly not, but in the absence of some outside help quite average.

This time, with Kemba Walker sitting out for load management purposes, and Jayson Tatum (29 points) and Jaylen Brown (28) slowly building to a second half crescendo, the Celtics didn’t have enough comeback left in their 117-110 loss to Cleveland.

Though they shot better from the line late than early, a poor 20-for- 28 free throw shooting effort clearly didn’t help.

But the Celtics fell prey once again to a self-sabotaging issue that crops up from time to time. When their shots stop falling, their energy suffers.

That’s precisely what dragged them down in the first half, allowing the water mite backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland to get comfortable against minimal ball pressure.

“I thought we came out of the gate with really good effort and what happened was I thought we were affected by missing shots,” said Brad Stevens. “And you could see our body language change. They had several possessions there on their offensive end where we got them to the end of the clock, and we were really guarding with great effort and you could hear us, you could feel that effort.

“But then we were affected and then it took us a while to get that back,” he said. “In the second half, we played more like you want to play but credit them. Every time we made a run, even when we got it close there at the end, they made every timely basket, they made every timely floater. They made catch and shoot threes. They beat us at the end of the clock on several occasions. So I think that was it. I didn’t feel, like, I don’t disagree that towards the middle and the end of the first half, we looked like we weren’t playing as urgent. But it wasn’t that we came out that way in my opinion.”

Tatum missed his first seven 3-point attempts before taking charge with a 15-point, 5-for-9 fourth quarter. Brown made the second half comeback possible by scoring nine straight Celtics points, including four transition drives, over the last three minutes of the third quarter, cutting the Cleveland lead to 82-74 by the start of the fourth.

But Sexton, Garland, Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman would all hit big shots down the stretch, countering the work of both Celtics stars. The Celtics never got closer than three points the rest of the way.

And now they’re in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, just half a game ahead of a Knicks team that has been playing better than themselves.

“All we’re trying to focus on, all we’re going to keep trying to focus on, is playing good basketball, right?” said Stevens. “And we saw more of that in the second half and didn’t see enough of it in the first, and it bit us.

“If you have a stretch like that against an NBA team, you’re usually in for a bad night. And when you’re playing a team that played with the kind of urgency and the way they did tonight, they made us pay for that. So, I just want to play good basketball. You guys have been around me long enough that you know what that means, what it looks like, what it feels like, and we saw again some of it. But we don’t do it enough of the time, obviously.”

Timelord survives a scare: Rob Williams, one of the few players who did things the right way in the defensive end, played a season-high 27 minutes — in part because Tristan Thompson remains in health and safety protocols. He responded with a 13-point, 6-for-7, 14-rebound, four-block performance and continues to excel in a career season.

Unfortunately the greater result wasn’t to his liking.

“Obviously it’s nice to be in that position, but I don’t feel good losing, man, so really I just want to focus on getting back on the winning track,” he said.

Williams also survived a scare after banging knees and falling hard late in the fourth. He walked off the irritation and quickly returned.

“I kind of got bumped in the knee, but you know with that situation you have to just run it off a little bit, stretch the knee out a little bit,” he said.

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