CLEVELAND — The Boston Celtics were two days removed from an embarrassing 44-point loss on their home court. They were one day removed from their best player, Isaiah Thomas, being shut down for the postseason due to a hip injury.
And despite trailing by as much as 21 points in the third quarter of Sunday’s Game 3 against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena, the Celtics refused to believe that they were out of the series.
“That’s not who we have in our locker room,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “We’ve got guys that have chips on their shoulders. A lot of these guys have been overlooked, and this is their first opportunity to really play a meaningful role. And as they’ve continued to play and play better and better and better, they’ve just risen in their games and with our team.
“We knew that Friday was a 46-point disaster. [It’s] worth one. It wasn’t worth all four. It was worth one. So we got back together and [Saturday] was a little bit tough; [Sunday] we had our spirit back.”
The Celtics, a 16.5-point underdog entering the game, pulled off the largest playoff upset in the past two decades — a 111-108 triumph after Avery Bradley‘s 3-pointer rattled home with 0.1 seconds to play.
In a postgame interview with CSNNE, the Celtics’ local broadcast partner, an emotional Al Horford, typically soft-spoken in his media sessions, shouted in excitement while celebrating the win.
“It’s big. It’s big. A lot of people doubting us out there, thought we were finished,” said Horford, looking directly into the cameras at times and congratulating teammates as they walked past him to the locker room. “Heart. We got heart. This team’s got heart. We got beat bad, but it’s all about how you rebound, and we bounced back tonight.”
Horford had been 0-14 in his playoff career against teams featuring LeBron James, including 0-12 during his days with the Atlanta Hawks. A fan courtside at Game 3 had a sign referencing Horford’s struggles. Horford finished with 16 points on 7-of-18 shooting with six assists.
Horford smothered his teammates with praise, especially Jerebko, who might have rescued the Celtics’ season when thrown into the second half of Sunday’s game.
Jerebko scored 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, which included a clutch late-game jumper before Bradley’s winner. Jerebko was plus-22 over 12:32.
“We had our downs, but we always believed in ourselves,” said Jerebko. “Even though other people around say whatever they want, our team, we always believed in each other.”
As for his contributions, Jerebko said, “My job is to always stay ready when Coach calls my number. That’s all I can do, all I can control.”
Bradley has two go-ahead field goals in the final 10 seconds of a game in his career, and both have come in Cleveland; he also hit a game winner in February 2016. Bradley admitted Friday’s lopsided loss left a sour taste in his mouth.
“It was embarrassing,” said Bradley. “I know everyone leaving the arena after last game, we were pretty down. But once we were able to get together the next day, we decided that we’re just going to go out and play hard, and whatever happens, happens.
“We’re going to go play with our backs against the wall, come out swinging. We’re going to go and play as hard as we can. We’re going to be the toughest team. We’re going to battle for the loose balls. We’re going to play hard, consistently, the entire game. We wanted to be that team. That was our mindset. We never counted ourselves out. We knew that if we came out and played hard, we would give ourselves a chance. You saw that tonight. And we’re going to continue to play that way throughout the series.”
Smart, who has struggled with his 3-point shot throughout this NBA career, connected on seven 3-pointers while scoring a team-high 27 points.
“Everybody in this locker room, on this team, has been told we couldn’t do something or had somebody that really didn’t believe in us,” said Smart. “We just kind of put that together all in one and, just like Avery said, told each other no matter what happens we’ve got to be the hardest-playing team. We just have to go out there and play.
“That’s what we did. Everybody kept believing in one another, and the biggest thing we did tonight is we didn’t argue with each other. We argued with each other a little bit in those two losses back at home, and that really hurt us. Tonight we were just really positive with one another.”