Celts clinch playoff spot as Irving returns

The Associated Press

The Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, center, dribbles as the Timberwolves’ Taj Gibson defends in the first half on Thursday.

The Associated PressMINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The presence of Kyrie Irving this season has made the Boston Celtics more of a dynamic team with the ball.

They’ve become quite the force on the other end of the court, too, as the Minnesota Timberwolves again found out.

Irving returned from a one-game absence to help Boston fend off Minnesota, finishing with 23 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in a 117-109 victory over the Timberwolves on Thursday that clinched a spot in the playoffs for the Celtics.

“That’s one of the goals,” Irving said. “Just glad we got it out of the way pretty early.”

Al Horford added 20 points, eight rebounds, six assists and tough defense on Karl-Anthony Towns for the Celtics, who stayed two games behind Toronto in the Eastern Conference race with their sixth win in seven games. They have three more losses than the Raptors.

Marcus Morris added 17 points for the Celtics, whose good vibes were tempered a bit by the hard landing Jaylen Brown took on his back after a dunk late in the third quarter. He was able to walk off on his own with 14 points, evaluated for concussion-like symptoms and taken to a hospital for precautionary testing.

“I was terrified. I mean, I know what that fall is like,” said backup Marcus Smart. “I’ve done it in high school, the same way. For him to get up, that’s a strong kid.”

Strength was the name of this game for the Celtics, who overcame a career-high 30 points by Nemanja Bjelica on 11-for-16 shooting, including 6 for 9 from 3-point range. Bjelica’s first 20-10 game in the NBA was ultimately wasted in the season-high third straight loss for the Timberwolves, who are still trying to find their way without injured All-Star Jimmy Butler. They trailed by as many as 18 points soon after halftime, too much to overcome some second-half surges behind Bjelica and 18 points from Taj Gibson on 8-for-10 shooting.

“We have to understand how hard and physical you have to play,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I think that’s the difference right now between us being a really good team and being a good team.”

Timberwolves add Rose

Derrick Rose signed with the Timberwolves earlier in the day, giving Thibodeau another experienced former player in the fold in the form of the 2011 NBA MVP on the roster.Speech

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