The Celtics led 86-70 after three quarters, but the Cavaliers opened the final period with a 23-6 run and surged in front, 93-92, with 5:21 left. Cleveland’s Ricky Davis scored 12 of his 38 points in the fourth.
“We’re not defending at a level that is nearly enough to be a good basketball team in the NBA,” Celtics coach Jim O’Brien said.
Pierce made 1-of-2 free throws to tie it with 4:55 to play, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas countered with a long baseline jumper. Pierce came back with a pivot move and short jumper in the lane to forge a 95-95 deadlock and Boston took the lead on a basket by Eric Williams with 3:12 remaining.
“We were trying to battle with them and it came down to the wire,” said Cleveland rookie Carlos Boozer, who had 20 points and a season-high 16 rebounds. “We just couldn’t … stop them from scoring.”
Jumaine Jones gave Cleveland its last lead, 98-97, on a 3-pointer from the corner off a kick-out pass from Davis with 2:46 left, but Pierce scored off another move in the lane to put the Celtics ahead for good.
On Boston’s next two possessions, Walter McCarty made a layup on a fast break and a 3-pointer from the left wing to put away the game.
“I have confidence in myself and I believe my shot is working whenever I get a chance,” McCarty said. “Whether it goes in or not, I can’t control it. My stroke felt good tonight and I felt fortunate to knock some down.”
McCarty, who was averaging 5.7 points per game, made a career-high 6-of-8 3-pointers and scored 20 points.
“He’s their X factor,” said Cavs guard Milt Palacio, who had five points and seven assists against his former team. “He hit some big shots and that’s his character.”
Pierce had nine rebounds and nine assists to help the Celtics extend their winning streak against the Cavaliers to 10 games. Boston moved a half-game ahead of Orlando for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Davis had seven boards and nine assists. He became the first Cavalier to score at least 30 points in back-to-back games since Brad Daugherty in November 26-27, 1991.
Cleveland shot 51 percent (43-of-85) from the field but could not stop the Celtics, who made 14 3-pointers, the most ever against the Cavs. In addition to McCarty’s six shots from the arc, J.R. Bremer hit 3-of-6.
Cleveland got good interior defense from Ilgauskas, who had five blocked shots to move past Daugherty into fifth place on the team’s all-time list.