BOSTON -- When you think about the Boston Celtics this season, Kyrie Irving’s ability to deliver in the clutch comes to mind.
But in his absence the last three games, we have seen others emerge as go-to performers down the stretch of close games.
It doesn’t get much closer than Sunday’s 97-96 buzzer-beating win over Portland, a game that ended with Al Horford knocking down a 20-foot, fade-away jumper as time expired.
The game-winning basket was just part of Horford’s strong play down the stretch, with him scoring or assisting on four of Boston’s seven made baskets in the final five minutes of play.
And of those seven made baskets, they were scored by five different players, which speaks to how diverse the Celtics can be with the game on the line and no Irving around to carry them.
“At the end of the day, we got some of the clutchest players in the game,” said Jaylen Brown, whose 3-pointer with 1:13 to play gave Boston its biggest lead (93-88) of the game. “Of course Kyrie and [Jayson Tatum], and I put myself in that category too. We always give ourselves a chance to win.”
Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 97-96 thriller against Portland, which extended Boston’s winning streak to four.
HORFORD STEPS UP
Because he does so many of the little things that lead to winning, it’s easy to forget that Horford can score against most NBA bigs. With Irving out and his replacement, Terry Rozier, struggling to make shots, Horford put the team on is back for longer stretches than usual on Sunday. And the end result was a team-leading 13th double-double of 22 points and 10 rebounds, which included the game-winning basket as time expired.
The Celtics went through a stretch where the third quarter was a time in which they struggled. But lately, it has been the jump-off for their second half success. Against the Blazers, Boston outscored Portland 31-19 in the quarter to nearly wipe out a 16-point halftime deficit. It was the third straight game Boston has outscored its opponent by double digits in the quarter, with the average margin during that span being 14.7 points per game.
END OF C’s BENCH EMERGES
Proving that their time to contribute may be sooner than later, the Celtics’ guys at the end of the bench really stepped up to make big plays against Portland. Abdel Nader, former D-League (now Gatorade League) Rookie of the Year, had seven points and five rebounds off the bench while doing a decent job defensively. And Guerschon Yabusele played just under eight minutes but still managed to score four points. Their ability to stay ready when opportunity comes calling, and deliver in the moment, bodes well for both their chances of playing down the road and the Celtics’ confidence that if needed they can produce.
WINNING THE WEST
Sunday’s victory was just the latest installment of how the West has been won by the Boston Celtics. Beating the Blazers improved Boston’s record to 15-5 against Western Conference teams. With 10 more games against foes from the West this season, there’s a high probability that this will be Boston’s best season under Brad Stevens record-wise, playing teams outside of the Eastern Conference. During the 2015-16 season, the Celtics had a record of 17-13 against Western Conference foes.
For the Celtics, it was a tale of two halves in terms of rebounding. Boston trailed by 16 points at the half, in part because the Blazers enjoyed a 28-19 rebounding edge, which was a factor in Portland’s ability to control the action. That all changed in the second half. Boston became more aggressive, more consistently. And the end result was a 32-18 rebounding advantage which certainly aided Boston’s 51.2 percent shooting in the second half while the Blazers connected on just 32.6 percent (15-for-46) of their shots in the second half.
NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE