For the first time in 11 days, we had an NBA playoff game that finished with a single-digit margin. Barely.
It didn’t look like it would be early — Boston missed lay-ups and dunks all through the first quarter (and 16 shots at the rim for the game, which the Cavs turned into 15 points going the other way), LeBron James was being LeBron James, and the Cavaliers had a 16 point first quarter lead. It was 15 at the half.
But these Celtics would not go quietly.
Boston started to find it’s offensive groove — hunting Kevin Love incessantly — but in the end couldn’t get enough stops because, well, LeBron James. He finished with 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting, his sixth 40-point game of these playoffs. He got wherever he wanted on the floor all night, carving up the top-ranked regular season defense of the Celtics like a surgeon. No other Cavalier had more than 14 points (Kyle Korver), but the supporting cast played enough defensive and made hustle plays to hang on.
Cleveland got the win, 111-102, and evened the series at 2-2. Game 5 is Wednesday night back in Boston.
What Celtics fans can feel good about is their team’s resilience and grit. Down big for the second-straight game on the road in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics fought back from as much as 19 down earlier in the game to get it to single digits and make the fans in Quicken Loan Arena nervous in the fourth quarter. That is something the team can carry over to Game 5, as they can some defensive tweaks that shut down opportunities for Korver and the rest of the supporing cast.
What should bother Celtics fans was another night where they struggled to generate offense in the face of more intense defensive pressure.
That came from the opening tip, with the Celtics missing a few layups and a couple of Jaylen Brown dunk attempts — all of which allowed the Cavs to get early offenses and mismatches going the other way. Those missed shots fueled a 10-0 Cavaliers run that had Cleveland up 19-10 early. The Celtics shot 3-of-10 at the rim in the first quarter, shot 26 percent overall, and trailed 34-18 after one.
The second quarter saw the Celtics start to find their offense — they scored 35 points on 50 percent shooting — but they only gained one point on the Cavaliers lead because Boston couldn’t get stops. LeBron had 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first half to pace a Cleveland team that shot 61.5 percent overall and hit 6-of-11 threes. That’s why the Cavs were up 68-53 at the half.
The Celtics energy was better than Game 2, but in the first half they looked like a young team, one that made a lot of mistakes.
In the second half, the Celtics started to figure things out — they started making the extra pass, they got stops for stretches, they looked more like a young team finding their footing on a big stage on the road. They finished the night with 25 from Jaylen Brown, 17 from Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier had 16 points and 11 assists.
They just couldn’t completely close the gap because they couldn’t get consistent stops — the Cavaliers shot 60 percent as a team for the game, and a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 59.6. Cleveland mercilessly hunted Rozier on switches — forcing him on to LeBron or Kevin Love then attacking — and the Cavs got enough from their role players. Tristan Thompson did what he needed to bringing energy in the paint and some defense, plus he had 13 points. Korver was diving on the floor for loose balls. Larry Nance Jr. had his second good game in a row. George Hill had 13 points.
And whenever the Cavaliers needed a play, they had LeBron to turn to. He set another NBA record on Monday night, most playoff field goals made for a career.
LeBron is what needs to worry Boston most of all. The Celtics will be better at home in Game 5 — they have not lost in TD Garden all postseason — but if this thing goes seven, it’s a dangerous thing when the other team has the best player on the planet.