CLEVELAND -- Avery Bradley immediately swung his arms in disbelief when he heard the whistle.
The Boston Celtics had clawed their way back into a game that probably should have gotten away in the third quarter and, desperate for a late-game stop, Bradley had played 23 seconds of inside-your-jersey defense trying to prevent Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving from generating another quality look.
Late in the clock, Irving forced up a fadeaway jumper from about a step inside the arc on the baseline. Bradley appeared to make minimal contact while defending, but Irving landed awkwardly and tumbled to the ground as referee Bennett Salvatore whistled a shooting foul in a four-point game with little more than three minutes to play.
Bradley wore an incredulous smile in the aftermath. In a quarter in which the Celtics had little answer for Irving and LeBron James -- a duo that would score all 24 of the Cavaliers' points in the final frame -- Bradley politely lobbied, "C'mon! That's crazy, man," then tried to get referee Marc Davis to watch a replay on the video board overhead.
It's impossible to know if a stop would have changed the complexion of the game. There's a chance that -- given the way the night was going for Boston -- the Cavaliers might have simply grabbed another backbreaking offensive rebound after the shot clanged off the side of the rim.
But the sequence served as a good snapshot of this first-round series for the Celtics. Boston has played hard, done a lot of things well, but all it takes is a momentary lapse or a bad bounce and the Cavaliers have capitalized.
Irving made both free throws after the foul and Boston got no closer the rest of the way as Cleveland emerged with a 99-91 Game 2 triumph at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavaliers lead the best-of-seven series 2-0.
Evan Turner, who was guarding James on the foul in question, was likewise perplexed by the whistle and voiced his displeasure with the sequence after Tuesday's loss.
"In that type of possession, it should never be called," said Turner, who added that it was a "crazy" call. He later admitted that referees have a tough job and they can't see everything, but didn't back down on his assertion while adding, "The [foul] behind the backboard, 35 feet or whatever in the corner, is a crazy foul. That was a big game-changer down the stretch."
Make no mistake, one whistle did not decide this game. The Celtics didn't shoot particularly well in the first half, but cleaned up a lot of the mistakes that plagued them in Game 1. Their reward for 24 minutes of full-throttle play? A one-point deficit as the Cavaliers utilized a late flurry to erase a nine-point deficit and take a 51-50 lead into halftime.
"I think that's pretty typical of them," Stevens said. "You can feel like you're doing pretty well and then you can feel like you're being steamrolled very quickly."
That steamrolling seemed to start in the second half as the Cavaliers gathered some momentum, thanks in part to a couple loud alley-oop dunks: the first a midcourt toss from James to Kevin Love for a reverse slam, the second an Irving feed to James to open a 14-point cushion.
The resilient Celtics managed to halve their deficit before the end of the third quarter and, four times in the final 10 minutes, got within one possession of the Cavaliers. Alas, each time Boston got close, James or Irving made a shot -- or generated a foul. What's more, Boston's rebounding regressed and Tristan Thompson, whom Jae Crowder dubbed the X factor in this series so far, grabbed two of Cleveland's four fourth-quarter offensive rebounds (which led to a total of seven second-chance points).
The Celtics acknowledged their lapses and used them as evidence to suggest that they are capable of hanging with these Cavaliers as the series shifts to Boston.
"We know exactly what we need to do," Crowder said. "Take away the offensive rebounds and we win the game, I feel like. We're going to go back [to Boston] and look at it, get ready for Game 3."
Stevens knows that his team has been able to compete with the Cavaliers, but he wants his squad to eliminate all the controllable errors -- and do it for 48 minutes -- as to give the Celtics an actual chance to generate a victory.
"Nobody has ever played a perfect basketball game, right? But you're on a quest to play perfect in what you can control," Stevens said. "And we were good, but we weren't near good enough. We did play better in a lot of ways.
Added Stevens: "This team will compete. I feel pretty comfortable saying we'll compete. We just have to be a little bit tighter. That's because the game demands that and because our opponent is awfully good."
The Celtics won't be satisfied with anything less than fighting their way back into this series at home.
"We don't like to do moral victories around here; we want to win," Jared Sullinger said.