The Boston Celtics are not ready to concede the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed to the Toronto Raptors just yet.
Boston went on the road Thursday and came away with a 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center, moving to 6-1 in its last seven. It is now just two games behind Toronto.
Things are trending in the opposite direction for the Timberwolves, who dropped their third straight with Jimmy Butler sidelined with a knee injury and lost additional ground in a tight Western Conference race. They entered play as the No. 6 seed but were just 1.5 games behind the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers and 2.5 games ahead of two teams outside the playoff picture.
Kyrie Irving proved too much for the Timberwolves and finished with 23 points, eight assists and seven rebounds while shooting 9-of-15 from the field and carrying the offense at winning time.
While Boston was surely happy to get the win and clinch a playoff berth, basketball was the least of its concerns in the third quarter when Jaylen Brown had a scary fall. He went up for a dunk on a fast break and lost his balance on the way down, falling hard on the head, neck and upper back area when he was unable to break his fall.
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A stretcher was brought out for precautionary reasons, but he walked to the locker room under his own power.
Chris Forsberg of ESPN weighed in on the play:
Brown didn't return and finished with 14 points and five rebounds as one of six Celtics to score in double figures in a balanced offensive attack against an overmatched Timberwolves defense.
Minnesota is a mere 24th in the league in defensive rating, per NBA.com, and that side of the ball has become an even bigger issue without Butler. He is more than just the team's leading scorer as a three-time All-Defensive Team selection who likely would have guarded Irving, Jayson Tatum and Brown at times.
Without Butler to worry about, Irving unleashed his typically smooth ball-handling on the outside and lightning-quick first step to create openings for himself and others. It was effective right out of the gates, as the Celtics poured in 35 points in the first quarter and never relinquished the lead in the final three.
Seizing early control proved critical because Boston head coach Brad Stevens was able to manage Irving's minutes (30) after he missed Monday's win over the Chicago Bulls with a knee injury.
The Celtics pulled ahead by double digits in the second with their point guard on the bench and kept Minnesota largely at bay even when he sat the first five minutes of the fourth.
With fresh legs down the stretch, Irving hit three shots inside the arc and assisted on an Al Horford three in four straight possessions, extending Boston's lead from seven to 12 and putting the Timberwolves away.
It was far from just the Irving show, as Horford (20 points, eight rebounds and six assists), Tatum (12 points and five boards), Marcus Morris (17 points and five rebounds) and Terry Rozier (13 points) kept a Boston offense that finished with 28 assists rolling.
That was enough for its defense, which is tops in the league in defensive rating, per NBA.com.
Minnesota was without Butler to bail it out when it needed a play to stem the Celtics' momentum, and the pressure fell to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Towns notched a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds, while Wiggins added 13 points, but they were a combined 11-of-33 from the field and couldn't match Irving's spurt in crunch time.
It was actually Nemanja Bjelica (30 points and 12 rebounds) and Taj Gibson (18 points) who did much of the offensive legwork when Minnesota trimmed an 18-point deficit in the third quarter to five at a point in the fourth, but Boston pulled away in the closing stretch.
Things won't get any easier for the Timberwolves with a Sunday matchup against the Golden State Warriors, while the Celtics will turn their attention to a matchup with the Indiana Pacers on the same day.