CLEVELAND – The Boston Celtics didn’t completely collapse.
They merely crumbled this time.
Two days after blowing a big late lead and losing at home to Cleveland, the Celtics nearly did it again before recovering and hanging on for a 93-90 win over the scrappy Cavaliers, who trimmed a 22-point deficit to two in the final minutes.
Paul Pierce scored 20 points, Ray Allen had 12 in the third quarter and Kevin Garnett made a key jumper down the stretch for the Celtics, who came away victorious but unfulfilled.
“I hate it,” Allen said. “We won, but I take it as a loss in terms of getting better. Being able to play for a full four quarters is what I want. Every day we have to get better.”
On Sunday, Boston wasted an 11-point lead in the final 4:25 as the Cavaliers scored the game’s final 12 points, capped by sensational rookie Kyrie Irving’s layup with 2.6 seconds left, to stun the Celtics.
It nearly happened again, but the Cavs couldn’t quite climb out of a 22-point hole.
“We just couldn’t finish it off,” said Irving, who scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. “We fought back. They gave us their best shot and it came down to the final minutes. We’re just got to keep our energy up for 48 minutes.”
Garnett and Brandon Bass added 13 points apiece for the Celtics, who were again without all-star point guard Rajon Rondo. He missed his seventh straight game with an injured right wrist, and although the Celtics improved to 5-2 without him, it was anything but easy.
Anderson Varejao added 20 points and a career-high 20 rebounds for the Cavs, who were also short-handed while playing without injured guards Daniel Gibson and Anthony Parker.
Boston entered the fourth leading by 16 — a reasonably comfortable margin. Or so the Celtics thought.
The Cavs weren’t done.
With Varejao outworking Boston’s big men underneath for nearly every rebound and loose ball and Irving taking control, the Cavaliers stormed back and closed within 78-71 when Alonzo Gee drained a three-pointer with 6:36 to play, sending Cleveland’s crowd into a frenzy.
Pierce and Garnett restored order with buckets and the Celtics pushed their lead to 11. But the Cavs kept fighting and were only down four with 1:18 left when Irving scored on a layup eerily similar to the game-winner he dropped after spinning down the lane at Boston Garden to win Sunday’s game.
On Boston’s next trip, Garnett hit the game’s biggest bucket. His turnaround jumper from 13 feet caromed off the rim and halfway up the backboard before dropping in, giving the Celtics, who looked and played tight down the stretch, some breathing room.
“I’ve been struggling with my shot a little bit,” Garnett said. “I came down and hit one.”
Varejao then missed two shots and Irving misfired before Pierce was fouled and hit two free throws with 2.6 seconds left to give the Celtics a 93-87 lead.
Irving hit a three-pointer from the corner as the final horn sounded, ending a frantic fourth quarter and allowing the Celtics to slip out of town with a win they nearly gave away.
“We’d like to end the game a little bit better with such a big lead,” Pierce said. “They really scrapped back and put pressure on both sides. I didn’t think, ‘Here we go again.’ We just needed to respond. That’s it. This type of thing happens quite a bit. We have to figure out how to make big plays down the stretch and we did that.”
Varejao left his imprint on the Celtics and all over the floor, diving, pushing and battling for rebounds. Celtics coach Doc Rivers believes Varejao deserves all-star consideration.
“He’s always an all-star, in my opinion,” Rivers said. “They should keep a spot for a role player. That’s what he does. What did he have, 20 points? I guarantee you they didn’t run one set for him. He had 20 rebounds, but he probably kept 10 more alive.”
Pierce also offered a compliment, of sorts, to Varejao.
“Anderson Varejao is a pain in the butt with his offensive rebounding and the way he knocks down shots and the way and keeps balls alive,” Pierce said. “He’s probably one of the most underrated players in the league. I was kind of joking saying we need to double-team him on the rebound when the ball goes up.”
Notes: Rondo travelled with the team, a strong sign he’ll be back soon. Boston opens a five-game homestand Wednesday against the Raptors and will host the New York Knicks on Friday. “He’s really close,” Rivers said. … Gibson returned to Cleveland after being hospitalized for two days in Boston with a neck infection. Gibson, who is being treated with antibiotics, will undergo further tests Wednesday before the team can determine when he’ll return. … Cavs rookie F Tristan Thompson of Brampton, Ont., did not return after injuring his left ankle in the second quarter. … Allen had missed three of Boston’s previous four games with an ankle injury.