Even after the Boston Celtics held serve at home to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals last week, LeBron James didn’t seem overly concerned with how things were shaping up for his Cleveland Cavaliers. When he got back to Northeast Ohio, he showed us why.
James followed up an efficient outing in Saturday’s 30-point drubbing of the visiting Celtics with his sixth 40-point game of the 2018 postseason on Monday, scoring a game-high 44 points in 42 minutes to lead the Cavaliers to a 111-102 win in Game 4 to knot the best-of-seven series up at two games apiece. The series will now shift back to Boston for the ever-pivotal Game 5 on Wednesday.
It wasn’t quite the brand of do-everything brilliance we’re accustomed to seeing from James; he grabbed just five rebounds and dished only three assists against a game-high seven turnovers. But he was absolutely dominant when it came to getting to his preferred spots on the floor and creating high-percentage looks. James shot 13-for-16 in the lane in Game 4, scoring 26 points in the paint — just 12 fewer than the Celtics managed as a team — to provide a steady dose of baskets that put Boston in trail position early and left the C’s chasing all night.
Center Tristan Thompson once again played a major role for coach Tyronn Lue, scoring 13 points with 12 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots in 38 minutes, while helping Cleveland once again dampen the effectiveness of Al Horford. Boston’s All-Star made his presence felt more firmly on Monday than he did in a quiet Game 3, scoring 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting with seven rebounds, and the Celtics did outscore the Cavs by two points in his 42 minutes of work (and were outscored by 11 in the six minutes he sat). But Thompson hounded him all over the court, fought for every offensive rebound and loose ball, and generally proved a persistent thorn in Brad Stevens’ side throughout the game, delivering the sort of rim-running energy and paint-patrolling menace that Cleveland so sorely lacked during the first two games of this series.
Kyle Korver added 14 points, four rebounds and even three blocked shots in 25 minutes off the bench, and Kevin Love battled through a cold shooting night (3-for-12 from the field) and foul trouble to contribute nine points, 11 rebounds and three assists. George Hill (13 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals) and J.R. Smith (nine points, 3-for-6 from 3-point range, three rebounds, three assists) helped space the floor and keep the ball moving for the Cavs, who would lead by as many as 19 points on their way to getting all square in the conference finals.
Jaylen Brown led five Celtics in double figures, scoring 17 of his team-high 25 points after halftime as Boston tried to claw back into the game after digging a big early hole with a slew of missed layups, dunks and other opportunities in the first quarter:
With Cleveland’s non-LeBron offense slowing down, Boston got as close as seven on two separate occasions in the fourth quarter. They couldn’t get over the hump, though, as LeBron scored seven points in the final 4 1/2 minutes, including a dagger 3-pointer after a blown defensive assignment left him wide open with 1:43 to go, putting Cleveland up by 14 points and sending Stevens’ Celtics back to the drawing board.
The Celtics came out of the gates aggressively in Game 4, looking to get Horford moving toward the basket and in a rhythm early after he went without a field goal attempt in the first quarter of Game 3. There was just one problem: Boston couldn’t make a shot up close. The C’s went 3-for-9 at the rim in the opening quarter, missing several layups and even a pair of dunks — one on a drive by Jayson Tatum defended by Thompson, another on a closing-seconds take by Brown — as they failed to take advantage of the relatively few clean opportunities they were able to generate against a more keyed-up and locked-in Cleveland defense.
The Cavs? They didn’t have so much trouble converting their opportunities, whether working in the pick-and-roll to force switches that generated advantageous matchups with Terry Rozier guarding bigger offensive players like Thompson and James, or looking to push off missed shots. Sure, you’ve seen Love whip a full-court outlet pass to LeBron before, and you’ve seen LeBron go up like Randy Moss to come down with the ball in traffic and lay it in before, but that doesn’t make it any less rad to watch right now:
Cleveland paired a 10-0 run midway through the first quarter with an 8-1 burst late in the frame — with LeBron sitting, no less — to take a 16-point edge into the second quarter. They’d keep the pressure on, riding a strong start by reserve sniper Korver, who even showed up on the defensive end, stonewalling a pair of Brown post-ups by blocking the rising star’s shot twice on the block. But Cleveland started to stagnate a bit, allowing the Celtics to chip away at the lead at the free-throw line and get the deficit down to single digits, 55-46, on a 3-pointer by Brown off a feed from Rozier with 3:37 to go in the half.
As dynamic as Rozier was in the second quarter, though — a pair of 3-pointers, four dimes without a turnover — he couldn’t help but give it back on the other end. Cleveland targeted him time and again, having his man screen for LeBron to force a switch that put the Celtics’ smaller point guard at the mercy of the best player in the world. James took advantage, either bulling his way to a good look around the basket if Boston didn’t send help …
After their frigid start, the Celtics had gotten warmed up in the second — 35 points on 50 percent shooting in the period, 6-for-10 from 3-point range — but could only slice one point off the Cavs’ advantage. That failure owed in part to a slew of costly mistakes, like more misses at the rim, some questionable shot selection (namely iffy 3-point pulls by the likes of Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeleye) and uncharacteristic lapses in transition, like this one that led to a late-quarter Thompson dunk …
… as well as a lapse in judgment: Smart saving the ball behind his back under his own basket right to Hill for a layup.
With the Celtics shooting themselves in the foot, James running the show — 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting, three assists leading to eight more points — and shooters Korver and Smith off to flying starts, the Cavs once again carved up Boston’s defense, shooting a scorching 65.7 percent from the field to take a 68-53 lead into intermission.
The Celtics would work to bite into that lead in a whistle-filled slog of a third quarter — the two teams combined for 17 personal fouls and 23 free throws, as the play got physical and the calls got sloppy — behind the attacking of rookie Tatum (11 of his 17 points in the frame) and six Cavalier turnovers. Despite James doing his level best to carry the Cavs with 13 third-quarter points, Cleveland’s lead dwindled to eight with just over two minutes to go in the quarter.
Boston couldn’t capitalize, though. Reserve center Larry Nance Jr. tilted the game with a string of energy plays — an offensive rebound and and-one put-back of a LeBron miss, followed by stealing the ball from Smart, racing down the floor in transition and drawing a foul that got him to the line for two more free throws — that pushed the lead back to 13, where it’d stay entering the fourth.
The Celtics would make a push with James on the bench to start the last quarter, getting seven quick points from Brown and a baseline spin for a two-handed dunk by Horford that made it 96-88 with 8:28 to go. James checked back in to restore order, but the Celtics — buoyed in part by some great minutes from backup big man Aron Baynes, who scored eight points with seven rebounds (five offensive) and blocked a Korver 3 — got within seven on a Smart layup with 4:29 remaining.
Again, Boston was in striking distance, needing only to string together one or two more plays to put the heat on Cleveland. Again, the Celtics couldn’t capitalize. They gave up a dunk to Thompson on the next possession and, after forcing James’ sixth turnover on an attempted pass in the paint, promptly gave the ball back when Marcus Morris saved the ball under his own basket — the second time Boston had done that on Monday ‐ right to James, who deposited a layup that put Cleveland back up 11:
The Celtics would never get closer than that. LeBron’s 3 turned out the lights with 1:43 left.
Now, after a second straight comfortable Cleveland win, the Eastern Conference finals have been reduced to a best-of-three sprint. The Celtics still have home-court advantage, and they’ve gone a perfect 9-0 at TD Garden this postseason. But the Cavs still has LeBron, so as they set out for Boston, you’ll forgive them if they still feel pretty good about their chances.