After dropping the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston, the Cavaliers were left for dead.
Now, after tying up the series in Cleveland, it feels like it is theirs to lose.
Yes, the Cavaliers remain the lower seed in this series after winning, 111-102, in Game 4, meaning they’ll have to do something no team has done in these playoffs – win in Boston – to advance to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season.
But it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking having to win a road game is going to stop James after everything he’s done in his career. And after putting up 44 points, five rebounds and three assists in Game 4, he appears primed and ready to go back to Boston – a city in which he’s had so much playoff history already – and muster another brilliant performance.
“I’ve put a lot of work in day in and day out with my body, working on my game every day, trying to put myself in the best condition I can be in the postseason,” said James, who passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most playoff field goals in NBA history during the game.
“It’s a hostile environment,” James added of Boston. We understand that. There’s no love in there if you don’t have on green. If you don’t bleed green, there’s no love for you. They have not lost a postseason game on their home court, so they’re going to be extremely confident.
“But if we play like we did in Games 3 and 4, we’ll have a good chance.”
Cleveland essentially won the game in the first quarter, going up 34-18 thanks to a 13-3 run to end it that blew things open for good. While Boston repeatedly would cut the lead to seven or eight in the second half, that initial cushion was enough for the Cavaliers to hold on and even the series.
James was brilliant, but he wasn’t alone. Tristan Thompson had 13 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, one steal and two blocks. George Hill had 13 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals, and Kyle Korver had 14 points. While Kevin Love had just nine points and six turnovers, he had 11 rebounds, three assists and got a couple of massive put-back buckets in the second half to stunt Boston runs.
Jaylen Brown led Boston with 25 points, and the Celtics had all five starters in double figures, but it never felt – despite the many runs Boston made – that the Celtics were going to push their way back into this one. Every time they had a chance, the Cavaliers managed to make a mini-run themselves to push the lead back to double digits and keep themselves at a safe distance.
Now the series will shift back to Boston, where James saw his first stint in Cleveland end in 2010 in one of his lowest moments – and then where he had arguably his greatest moment in beating the Celtics in Game 6 of this same series in 2012 on his way to winning his first championship with the Miami Heat.
Given the state of this Cleveland roster, it may take another herculean effort from James to win Game 5, and bring this series back to Northeast Ohio for a chance to go to the NBA Finals yet again. But who would doubt James now?
After those first two games, it felt like, if Boston could win either of these games in Cleveland, the series would assuredly end in five games, and that the Cavaliers would break. Cleveland has been through so much this season, and the last four seasons, that this team constantly feels on the verge of collapse.
These two wins, though, have Cleveland back even and have James knowing exactly what he needs to do: go to Boston and win. That’s a scenario James has been in many times before. And more often than not, he’s done what he needs to do.
Boston’s mission coming into these games was to keep James from getting to that point. For one of the first times in this magical season, the Celtics failed to accomplish something they set out to do.
Giving James a chance is never a good idea. Now we’ll see if he can take advantage of it.
If history is any guide, he will.
Since LeBron James checked into the game with 8:28 remaining, the Cavaliers have only scored four points in 2:27 of game action. The Celtics, though, have only scored one.
Missing a golden opportunity to close their deficit here in the fourth, Boston has missed all four shots it has attempted – three-pointers from Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, plus a Brown shot in the paint. The only point they have gotten was from Aron Baynes making one of two free throws.
That allowed Boston to get within seven – the closest it has been in the second half. But a Kevin Love putback and a James fast break layup forced Brad Stevens to call timeout with 6:01 remaining after Cleveland had pushed the lead back to 11.
If the Cavaliers go on to win this game – and perhaps go on to win the series – Boston will rue this stretch where it failed to take advantage of the opportunity Cleveland presented it.
Once again, the Celtics have cut the Cavaliers’ lead to eight points with eight minutes to go. They did so with LeBron James sitting on the bench.
Now, here comes James, checking back in with 8:28 remaining after an Al Horford dunk in the post made it 96-88 in favor of Cleveland. Boston has managed to hang around all game, despite being thoroughly outplayed. Now the Celtics will have a chance to steal this game in Cleveland – which will all but end the series.
Doing so, however, will mean taking down a (somewhat) rested James – who, by the way, has 35 points on 13-for-21 shooting. In other words: it won’t be easy.
As this game has gone along, the same theme has emerged time and again: The Cavaliers keep turning the ball over, allowing the Celtics to make a run back into the game … only for the Cavaliers to extend the lead again.
Cycle, rinse and repeat.
Now, with the game heading into the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers hold an 89-76 lead. LeBron James has 35 points for Cleveland, but the Cavaliers have started to come back to earth offensively (as expected) – which, coupled with the turnovers, kept allowing Boston to creep back into the game.
Boston’s starting five did a lot of damage in the third, as all five starters are now in double figures – led by Jayson Tatum’s 17 points – but Cleveland has managed to keep the lead above eight the entire time.
The Cavaliers are 24 minutes away from having this series even through four games.
Cleveland is up 68-53 at halftime of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, as LeBron James leads the way – as usual – with 22 points, three rebounds and four assists for Cleveland. Tristan Thompson has added 10 points and eight rebounds for the Cavaliers, while Kyle Korver has 14 points on 4-for-4 shooting.
As a team, the Cavaliers are shooting 63.2 percent overall and 54.5 percent from three-point range. They have outscored Boston 26-12 in points in the paint and 6-0 in fast break points. Only turnovers have prevented this from being a complete rout.
Once again, Boston can’t score on the road, with Terry Rozier being the only player in double figures with 10 points, while Boston is shooting 37 percent overall – including just 10 for 29 inside the three-point arc. Boston is actually doing well from three, going 7 for 17. But that’s about the only bright spot Celtics fans can point to right now.
For everything that has gone wrong in this game for the Celtics, there is one stat that has worked in their favor thus far: one turnover.
That has allowed Boston to begin to slowly work itself back into a game it has no business being in after a horrid first half offensively. But by not giving the ball away – and by Cleveland committing eight turnovers that have turned into 10 Boston points – the Celtics have turned a game that was hovering near a 20-point Cleveland lead early in the second to one that’s dropped down to 13 here late in the quarter.
The lead had gotten to within nine when Jaylen Brown hit a corner three, but back-to-back buckets by LeBron James, who now has 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting, has pushed Cleveland back up to a double-digit lead.
A decent start to the second quarter has allowed Boston to begin to drag itself back into this game, but the Celtics still trail by 13 midway through the second quarter.
LeBron James already has 14 points to lead Cleveland, while Kyle Korver has again gotten going off the bench with 11 first half points. Terry Rozier is the only player in double figures for Boston with 10.
Something to watch: foul trouble. Marcus Morris got three fouls in the first quarter for Boston, while Kevin Love has three fouls for Cleveland and three players – James, Korver and Jeff Green – already have two for Cleveland.
At the end of the first quarter of Game 3 Saturday night, the Celtics trailed by 15.
At the end of the first quarter of Game 4 Monday night, the Celtics trail by 16.
The road demons that have haunted Boston throughout these playoffs have come back to get them again, as the Celtics are 7 for 26 from the floor in the first quarter, including both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum missing dunks, while Boston also went 1 for 7 from three-point range.
Add in three fouls for Marcus Morris, the primary defender for LeBron James, and there was just about nothing that went right for Boston in the first quarter. If it wasn’t for the Cavaliers committing four turnovers (compared to one for Boston), this game could be even more out of hand.
LeBron James may be the greatest player in the history of basketball.
He also would have been the greatest tight end in the history of football had he stuck with the sport.
Just look at this play, as Kevin Love – the premier outlet passer in the NBA – hits James with a full-court pass that he grabs over two defenders and puts in for an easy layup.
Baker Mayfield, the quarterback the Cleveland Browns took first overall in last month’s NFL draft, is in attendance at Monday night’s game. I have to imagine he’s sitting there wondering how to convince James to come join him on the football field this fall after seeing a play like this.
The Celtics chose not to change their starting lineup in Game 4 after being routed in Game 3.
So far, though, it’s just been more of the same for the Cavaliers.
An and-one layup from LeBron James has made it 17-10 midway through the first quarter, as Marcus Morris has already picked up two fouls, and the Celtics as a team are shooting just 4 for 13 from the field.
Boston’s road woes in these playoffs are well-documented, as the Celtics are just 1-5 away from home (compared to 9-0 at home). This start isn’t looking like that trend is going to change.
As a truly pivotal Game 4 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics gets underway, the key matchup in this game – and, truly, in this series – doesn’t involve LeBron James, Al Horford, Kevin Love or Jayson Tatum.
No, the matchup to watch tonight, and moving forward, as the Celtics and Cavaliers vie to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals is the battle at point guard between Cleveland’s George Hill and Boston’s Terry Rozier.
In the games Cleveland has played well in during these playoffs – Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers, the four-game sweep of the Toronto Raptors, Game 3 in Cleveland against Boston – Hill has been a huge factor. When he’s playing well, he is arguably the only effective two-way player on the roster besides James, giving Cleveland a desperately needed versatile and effective player to pair with him. It also means Jordan Clarkson never has to have the ball in his hands – which is good, given Clarkson would never let anyone else have the ball in their hands.
Rozier, meanwhile, has been a spark plug for Boston throughout the playoffs. With Kyrie Irving out, Rozier is one of the few players who can explode for 25 or 30 points on the Celtics, and he’s done a nice job limiting his turnovers in the games in which he’s played well. And, normally, those have been the games Boston has managed to win. In Boston’s 10 playoff victories, Rozier is averaging 19.8 points on 46.3 percent shooting overall and 43.2 percent from three. In Boston’s five playoff losses, Rozier is averaging 11.8 points on 32.2 percent shooting overall and 24.3 percent from three.
So as you’re watching tonight’s game, focus in on the Hill-Rozier matchup. The winner of it will play a large part in which of these teams comes out on top – and, by extension, takes control of this series.
Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers, 8:30 p.m., ESPN (Boston leads 2-1)
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