The Celtics, who blew an 11-point lead at home Sunday in the final four minutes and lost by one, led by 22 late in the third quarter.
However, the Cavs rallied again behind rookie Kyrie Irving and got within two on his twisting layup with 1:18 left. But Kevin Garnett dropped in a short jumper that bounced high off the rim and Pierce made two free throws with 2.6 seconds left as the Celtics avoided further embarrassment.
Irving scored 21 points and Anderson Varejao added 20 and a career-high 20 rebounds for Cleveland.
The Celtics were again without All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, whose injured right wrist kept him out of his seventh straight game. The Celtics improved to 5-2 without him.
It wasn’t easy.
Allen went scoreless in the first half, but helped orchestrate Boston’s Rondo-less offense with five assists. However, after halftime, the NBA’s career leader in 3-pointers got himself going. Allen scored six points in the opening three minutes and then hit two straight 3-pointers, the second one an apparent dagger that put the Celtics ahead 75-53.
Boston entered the fourth leading by 16 — a comfortable margin.
Or so the Celtics thought.
The Cavs weren’t done.
With Varejao outworking Boston’s big men underneath and Irving taking control, the Cavaliers stormed back and were within 78-71 when Alonzo Gee drained a 3-pointer that sent Cleveland’s crowd into a frenzy.
Pierce and Garnett restored order and put the Celtics up by 11, but the Cavs kept fighting and were within four when Irving scored on a layup eerily similar to the game-winner he dropped at Boston Garden in the closing seconds to win Sunday’s game.
On Boston’s next trip, Garnett hit the game’s biggest bucket. His shot 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.
Cleveland couldn’t quite finish the job this time, and Irving’s 3-pointer from the corner at the final horn ended a frantic fourth quarter.
Rondo hasn’t played since getting hurt against Toronto on Jan. 18, but he’s nearing a return. He traveled with the team, a strong sign he’ll be back sometime soon. Boston opens a five-game homestand Wednesday against the Raptors and will host the New York Knicks on Friday.
“Him being on the road means he wanted to work with the team,” coach Doc Rivers said. “With us, when you see a guy on the road, it means he’s really close.”
Rivers felt his team had let up on Sunday, when the Cavs closed the game with a 12-0 run.
“They thought they could squeeze out the game,” Rivers said of the Celtics. “All of a sudden, Cleveland got excited. We couldn’t turn them off. There was a lot of frustration. That’s good to see. I like that.”
Rivers didn’t like what he witnessed in the final 12 minutes as his team again became complacent.
This time, the team with shamrock logo got a little lucky.
Notes: Cavs G Daniel “Boobie” 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 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. … Boston has won five of six.