Dispatching the Cavaliers was a boon for the Celtics — even with the drama and doubt

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BOSTON — Despite how it’ll look in the ledger, the Boston Celtics had a harder-than-anticipated time getting past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Yes, the Celtics wrapped it up in a tidy five games, culminating in a 113-98 victory Wednesday night at TD Garden. Five games! But even then — geez, even then — the undermanned Cavs played the role of unwelcome house guests with such aplomb that this game was still a game in the fourth quarter. Without Donovan Mitchell (left calf), without Jarrett Allen (right rib), without Caris LeVert (left knee), the Cavs, who in the words of Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla were “fighting for their lives,” got to within 3 points of Boston early in the fourth.

That’s when it all could have fallen apart for the Celtics. That’s when the Cavs could have pulled off another upset, as they did in Game 2. That’s when all the talk over the next two days would have been about the Celtics’ seeming inability to win home playoff games.

None of that happened or will happen. Instead, the Celtics put away the game, and thus the series and Cleveland’s season, with a 13-2 run, including back-to-back 3-pointers by Al Horford and Derrick White. But it took all night for that run to materialize. The way 22-year-old Evan Mobley (33 points) was playing for the Cavs, things were indeed, shall we say, interesting.

But if you’re a Celtics fan, here’s an uplifting observation: So what if Cleveland made it interesting? Put another way, the Cavs might have done the Celtics an enormous favor. Perhaps your take is that the Celtics made it tough on themselves in this series — remember that 118-94 blowout loss to the Cavs in Game 2? — or maybe your take is that despite a valiant effort from Cleveland, it still turned out as a five-game free pass to the Eastern Conference finals. But beyond the obvious (they’re in the Eastern Conference finals) this series was a boon for the Celtics on two important levels.

One, they were champions of depth at a time when Kristaps Porziņģis is still recovering from the calf strain that knocked him out of the opening-round Miami Heat series. As Mazzulla rotated different players in and out to help offset Porziņģis’ absence, it’s worth noting that the series began with Luke Kornet coming up big in Game 1 with 10 rebounds in a little over 21 minutes, and it ended with Horford, who turns 38 on June 3, logging just under 35 minutes, scoring 22 points and collecting 15 rebounds. As a side note, what a night for Horford family history: Al had his father, former NBAer Tito, sitting floor side, and then Al walked into the postgame interview room with his young son.

But the Cavaliers pushed the Celtics. They challenged the Celtics. They did all that despite being shown the door in those five games.

“You have to give Cleveland credit,” Horford said. “They were depleted, and they just did not quit. They really pushed us.”

You also have to give Horford credit. Jayson Tatum volunteered to do that.

“There was one play in particular, when he saved the ball out of bounds in the last two minutes of the second quarter,” Tatum said. “It gave us that extra possession and pumped the crowd up, pumped the team up.”

The crowd needed pumping up. It’s safe to roll it out there that it was a suspicious, edgy house for Game 5, the crowd a loud bunch but not otherworldly so. Why? Start here: The Celtics had already lost two home playoff games this postseason, one against Miami, and one against the Cavs. It also didn’t help that the Celtics’ sluggish start dulled the roar. It’s not like everyone came to see Mobley.

Were the Celtics, for lack of another way to put it, tight?

“Not internally,” Tatum said. “We talked about it before the game and at halftime. Joe said however long it takes, that’s how long it’s going to take. We didn’t come out with the expectation we were going to win the game in the first quarter or by halftime. For 48 minutes, we kept reaching. Play the game to the end and we’ll figure it out.”

And then the fourth quarter arrived, by which time the Celtics had figured it out. The 13-2 run seemed to come out of nowhere, beginning with a Jrue Holiday turnaround jumper and ending with a Tatum pull-up. After that, it was all one long ovation.

No, this group of Celtics has yet to win a championship. And that used to be the hope. Now, with Holiday and a hopefully soon-to-return Porziņģis added to the mix, what was once a hope has now become an expectation. This will be the Celtics’ third straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals, and given the way things ended last year and the year before that, it isn’t enough.

But Tatum pointed out “how we responded after Game 2, going into Cleveland in a pretty good environment and winning two road games,” as a good sign.

He’s right. And the Celtics are exactly where they’re supposed to be. They got past Cleveland in five, even if Game 2 was a clunker and parts of games 4 and 5 scared everyone.

For all the drama, for all the doubts, for all the hiccups, this was precisely the kind of series the Celtics needed.

“Closeout games are tough,” Mazzulla said. “It’s a level of stress, anxiety, desperation. … At the end of the day, you gotta keep going … you just gotta play. I thought the guys focused on the task at hand.”

The task at hand was ending Cleveland’s season. Mission accomplished.

(Photo of Jayson Tatum: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)

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