BOSTON -- His team's ability to give away a double-digit lead might eventually give Boston Celtics first-year coach Brad Stevens an ulcer, but for at least one game, he was able to keep his sense of humor about the issue.
"I was telling [team president] Rich Gotham it should have been promoted as part of our holiday [ticket] package: 'Every game is an adventure,'" deadpanned Stevens after the Celtics almost gave away a 22-point lead before fending off the Cleveland Cavaliers at the finish line of a 103-100 triumph in a Saturday matinee at TD Garden.
"And that would have been, you know, Green Runs Deep, hashtag Every Game is an Adventure," cracked Stevens, referring to the team's 2013-14 slogan Green Runs Deep, which is often attached in hashtag form to its tweets. "That would be a great thing to promote. Maybe we can work on that. Can we get that on the website?"
The Celtics entered the fourth quarter Saturday with a 19-point lead but watched the Cavaliers get the ball back down two with 19.3 seconds to play. Fortunately for Stevens, his team displayed the defensive focus that he's been imploring them for while twice denying the Cavaliers the chance to win or force overtime over their final two possessions.
Showcasing that same sense of humor, Stevens opened Saturday's postgame news conference by noting, "I thought we did a really good job and played exceptionally well in the fourth quarter, for [19.3] seconds."
Boston may be undersized up front, but it showcased its defensive versatility during those two final plays, its ability to switch highlighted as Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley came up with key stops in what should have been mismatch situations.
More importantly, Boston managed to keep the ball out of the hands of Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers All-Star guard who became the first player to score 30-plus points against the Celtics this season (the last team in the league to allow that feat).
With 19.3 seconds left, the Celtics had decided coming out of a timeout that they would switch pick-and-rolls to prevent the Cavaliers from generating a 3-point look in a two-point game. Cleveland had planned to bring Irving off a stagger screen but alerted its guards to take advantage of any matchups generated by a switch.
Irving darted free for a split second as Bradley fought through the pair of screens, but Kris Humphries made maybe the most under-the-radar play of the game when he momentarily left a screening Anderson Varejao to deny any chance for a pass to Irving above the arc on the weak side of the floor.
A switched pick-and-roll had left Bass covering the smaller, quicker Dion Waiters, and that was enough to entice the second-year guard to attack in isolation. Jeff Green couldn't drift far from rookie Anthony Bennett beyond the 3-point arc on the same side, leaving Bass essentially on his own. But the ninth-year power forward stuck with Waiters on the left block and managed to block an off-balance shot attempt with his left hand.
"I just moved my feet, just trying to get the stop," said Bass. "I was able to get the block."
But that's a tough switch, right?
"Yeah, it is," said Bass. "Quick guy, very explosive. I was just able to move my feet and get the block. Definitely can't give up on it. I pride myself on individual defense or team defense. I think that paid off for me."
Even the Cavaliers could only tip their caps. They got exactly what they wanted (at least once Humphries denied Irving the ball), and Bass made a heck of a play after Waiters had done a nice job getting to the rim, just as he had done numerous times while aiding Cleveland's comeback.
The Cavaliers got another chance to at least force overtime after Bradley missed the front end of two free throws with 1.4 seconds to play but never got a shot off.
Their final play seemed to be a bit like Green's winner in Miami, where he flared to the far corner with potential for the cross-court pass. Boston switched its defenders, which might have discouraged the long feed (Jordan Crawford picked up Irving while Green chased Waiters close to the inbounder). That left Bradley matched up on Earl Clark, another mismatch, given that Clark has as much as eight inches on Bradley.
But Bradley got right into his hip as he caught the ball straightaway above the arc. Clark, who had hit three 3-pointers and had 12 points in the game, tried to put the ball on the floor to create space, but that prevented him from getting the shot off before the buzzer.
"I just tried to make it hard on him," said Bradley. " I don't think he missed a shot all game. He [seemed to make] every 3 he shot. I knew if they got the ball to him, I would have to contest it and make it hard."
Cleveland coach Mike Brown lamented his team's execution on the final play but admitted that Boston's ability to switch made it difficult.
"We had guys moving too early. Not only that, they just switched everything, and that was the downfall of that," said Brown. "It was designed to get the ball to Kyrie, but they switched it and took us out of it after we moved too soon."
The Celtics have seen their defense endure some lulls in consistency lately, and Stevens has implored his team to bring better focus. He's suggested that even as few as two additional stops per game can be the difference.
On Saturday, it certainly was.