Avery Bradley’s three-pointer in the last second of Game Three touched every part of the rim before bouncing in, giving the Celtics an improbable 111-108 road win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.
The surprise loss means Cleveland leads the best-of-seven series 2-1 ahead of Game Four in Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday.
“Thank God it’s bouncing on the rim because that’s taking time,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters.
“If it goes in or doesn’t go in, they have a timeout left. So when it bounced around, I was actually hoping it went in, obviously, but not completely disappointed that it was bouncing up there.”
The Celtics came into the contest missing star player Isaiah Thomas, who is out for the remainder of the post-season because of a hip injury, and aware that the Cavaliers had lost just one home game to an Eastern team in the playoffs since 2015.
However, Thomas’ replacement, Marcus Smart, scored a career-high 27 points and handed out seven assists, and Bradley had 20 points.
Al Horford added 16 points, Jae Crowder amassed 14 points and 11 rebounds, and Kelly Olynyk contributed 15 off the bench for the Celtics, who were beaten by an average of 28.5 points in the first two games.
When the two teams left Boston after Game Two, the Cavs had beaten the Celtics by 44 points for the most lopsided win in Eastern finals history, a defeat that both stung and inspired Stevens’ side.
“We’ve got guys that have chips on their shoulders,” Stevens added. “A lot of these guys have been overlooked, and this is their first opportunity to really play a meaningful role.
“We knew that while Friday was a 44-point disaster, it was worth one (game). It wasn’t worth four.”
The Cavs led by as many as 21 points in the third quarter on Sunday but they shot 2-for-17 from three-point range in the second half. The Celtics made 18 three-pointers for the game.
Cleveland also committed 16 turnovers that Boston turned into 14 points. The Celtics gave the ball away nine times, leading to five Cavaliers points.
“You let a team grab momentum like that, you almost know that last shot is going in,” James said.
“It was like, you already knew. As soon as the ball went out of his hands, you kind of knew that shot was going to go in because of how the game was just played throughout the second half.”
James was ineffective, scoring just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting with six turnovers. He was held scoreless in the fourth quarter and was limited to three points in the second half.
“I didn’t have it,” James said.
Kyrie Irving led the Cavs with 29 points, and Kevin Love added 28 points and 10 rebounds. Tristan Thompson scored 18 points to go with 13 boards.
Cleveland blew a chance to set a playoff record for consecutive wins (14) dating to Game Five of last year’s NBA Finals and become the fourth team in history to start the playoffs 11-0.