The Cavaliers are headed back to Boston with a chance to close out their third consecutive Eastern Conference finals.
They have Kyrie Irving’s brilliance to thank.
Irving takes over
Irving poured in a playoff career-high 42 points, 21 of which came in the momentum-swinging third quarter. The Cavs outscored the Celtics 40-23, flipping a 10-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead.
Irving rolled his ankle with 1:49 left in the third quarter. He then proceeded to score 12 points before the quarter ended on a flurry of contact-seeking drives and a devastating 26-foot step back three-pointer. Irving finished the quarter 9 for 10 from the field as the Cavs shot 76% from the field. The nine made field goals was a franchise playoff record.
“The importance of Game 4, especially the way we came out in Game 3, in the back of my mind I’m saying to myself, ‘they cannot tie up the series,’” Irving said. “We cannot go to Boston 2-2.”
He didn’t let them.
LeBron’s unprecedented fouls:
LeBron James has never picked up four fouls in a half in any game of his career , before Tuesday night’s Game 4. He picked up his third after knocking into Marcus Smart on a three-point attempt early in the second quarter, but the Cavs were already down 10 at that point. It was telling that Cavs coach Ty Lue opted to leave James in, an indication of how desperate the Cavs were early on.
That gamble nearly blew up in Lue’s face when James picked up his fourth on an offensive charge two minutes later. James was yanked, and didn’t score again until the third quarter when he was assisted by Irving on back-to-back possessions.
The Celtics will likely look back on the stretch as the turning point in the game. James left with the Cavs down 10, and Boston wasn’t able to increase that margin at all.
“Yeah, my rhythm for the most part is broken when you, I can’t remember the last, I don’t think I’ve ever had four fouls in a game before in the first half,” James said. “You’ve got to figure out ways you can still help the team, and my teammates said be aggressive, be you.”
James didn’t pick up another foul despite playing 22:44 of the second half. His final line – 34 points on 15 of 27 shooting and six assists was staggering after such a disjointed, turnover-ridden first half.
Isaiah Thomas factor
As much everyone wanted to count the Celtics out after they lost their leading scorer to a hip injury for the remainder of the postseason following Game 2, it actually served as an advantage of sorts to Boston. Thomas didn’t play Game 3, Marcus Smart scored a playoff career-high 27 points and the Celtics momentarily made things interesting with Sunday’s improbable win.
But the reality is that the Cavs had prepared and scouted for a Celtics offense that was predicated on Thomas. Once he was removed from the equation, the Cavs weren’t sure where there defensive coverages were supposed to be.
It’s why the Celtics bolted to a 57-47 halftime lead of Game 4. The Cavs were still adjusting to the evenly distributed offense. Four different Celtics had at least three assists in the first half, part of 17 assists on 21 made field goals. Four different players, led by 13 each from Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, had at least seven points.
Each possession seemed to feature at least four or five perimeter passes, which stood in stark contrast to the isolation offense the Cavs were deploying.
“We game planned, because their series went to (Game) seven (vs. the Washington Wizards), we game planned for both teams,” James said. “And they’re a different team when IT is – I won’t say different team, they run different things just because of IT being a huge piece of the puzzle for them offensively.”
Every starter but Smart had at least 15 points Tuesday night.
Love’s cool night
Love finished with a cool 17 points and 17 rebounds that was somehow overshadowed by Irving’s magnificence and James’ strange night. Love isn’t typically known for his defense – aside from what happened in last year’s Game 7 against Steph Curry – but his defense ignited the third quarter run. The Cavs were engaged on the defensive side of the ball, and Love forced a few deflections that led to transition run outs.
Irving, James and Love finished with 93 combined points, the most the three have ever had together in a playoff game. It would’ve been 95 had James not missed one of the easiest dunks of his life. Love corralled a defensive board, wrested it away from Celtics center Al Horford and heaved it downcourt to James, who was so amped up that he missed. The bucket would’ve given the Cavs their first lead since it was 5-4.
“I’ve missed a couple dunks in my career,” James said. “I think I’ve made more than I’ve missed though. Percentages are pretty good.”
Closing it out
The Cavs can end this Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night in Boston, cementing the third iteration of Warriors-Cavs. A threequel has never happened in NBA history.
Despite what happened in the first two games, and the historic pounding in Game 2, it’s still a hostile road environment.
“They’ve got guys that’s always kind of been counted out throughout their career, so they play with a lot of pride,” James said. “And then you add the green on their back and this is history, this is a franchise that no matter who’s out on the floor, you have to play for that franchise and play with pride.”
Source: Michael Singer, US Today