Cavs hold Celtics at bay again, move within a win of first-round sweep

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 23: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers takes a shot over Evan Turner #11 of the Boston Celtics during the first quarter of their game in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 23, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 23: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers takes a shot over Evan Turner #11 of the Boston Celtics during the first quarter of their game in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 23, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The young Boston Celtics have held their own as massive underdogs against the contending Cleveland Cavaliers in their first-round playoff series. Unfortunately, that succession of moral victories still has the Celtics one loss from being swept out of the postseason.

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Strong games from LeBron James and Kevin Love helped the Cavs withstand a rough outing from star point guard Kyrie Irving and come away with a 103-95 victory in Game 3 at TD Garden. The Celtics stayed close to the heavily favored Cavs for the third straight game and were within one but once again could not make enough plays late to come away with an upset victory. Cleveland now leads 3-0 and can close out the series in Sunday's Game 4 in Boston.

Game 3 played out similarly to Games 1 and 2, albeit with some tweaks. After scoring 56 combined points on efficient shooting in the first two games, Kyrie Irving struggled to only 13 points on 3-of-11 shooting in his 40 minutes in Game 3. The Celtics have impressed throughout this series with tough defense, but excellent perimeter defenders Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart finally got the better of Irving.

Yet the Cavs are dangerous in part because they have so many offensive options, and the Celtics were unable to stop every Cleveland threat. In particular, they had few answers for LeBron James, who was his usual do-everything self with a game-high 31 points (13-of-26 FG), 11 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks. Arguably his most impressive highlight came at the defensive end with this late denial of an Evan Turner dunk attempt:

With LeBron serving as the focus of the offense, it's no surprise the Cavaliers succeeded largely with outside shooting (12-of-29 as a team). Irving was at his best with long-range shots (2 of 3 on threes) while J.R. Smith came back from very poor shooting in the two previous games (6 of 21 from the field and 3 of 15 from deep) to put up 15 points on 3 of 8 from beyond the arc. Yet the biggest threat for the Cavs was Kevin Love, who contributed with 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting from outside, nine rebounds and three assists. Love also served up the dagger to make the score 101-93 with 26 seconds left:

That video doesn't show the offensive rebound by Tristan Thompson that came 23 seconds earlier. Thompson has been a supremely effective hustle guy for the Cavs all series, and he continued to have that impact in Game 3 with 12 points, seven rebounds (five offensive) and two blocks.

The Cavaliers have needed him, too, because the Celtics continue to make up for their severe talent deficit with boundless energy. Boston trailed by double digits on several occasions on Thursday, but the margin never went above 11 and typically turned back into a two-possession game quickly. Jae Crowder was particularly impressive in this one, logging 31 minutes off the bench for 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks.

The problem for the Celtics is that effort only gets a team so far against the elite. Sometimes a game merely comes down to the fact that one squad can count on LeBron James and the other must depend on Evan Turner (who was fairly good overall with 18 points, eight rebounds and eight assists). The Cavaliers' point differential is less explosive than what many expected from this series, but the Celtics still haven't done enough to come away with a victory. Effort can cover for many deficiencies, but 5-of-19 shooting from the perimeter and 20 assists vs. 15 turnovers cannot be made irrelevant. They just don't have the same margin for error as their more famous opponents.

It's unlikely that their pending elimination will trouble the Celtics much — they've already out-performed expectations this season and will leave the postseason with their honor intact. If nothing else, though, this series has been a lesson in the difference between the good and the great in this league. Boston's next challenge will be to build on its already impressive foundation.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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