The Cleveland Cavaliers took care of business on Sunday, earning a 101-93 win over the Boston Celtics to finish off a four-game sweep in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series. They sustained some costly damage in the process, though, losing two starters — one to injury, the other to ejection — during the course of a 48-minute slugfest that could have the Cavs entering Round 2 wounded and short-handed.
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LeBron James scored 27 points on 10-for-24 shooting, 10 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a block — his NBA record 33rd career playoff game with at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists — in a game-high 46-plus minutes to lead the way. Kyrie Irving did his part, too, capping off his first career playoff series with 24 points on 8-for-19 shooting, 11 rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block in 43 minutes to propel Cleveland into a second-round matchup with the winner of the series between the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. Chicago holds a 3-1 lead in that series, with Milwaukee staying alive Saturday thanks to a buzzer-beating layup by guard Jerryd Bayless. Game 5 will take place Monday night in Chicago.
The Cavs came out aggressive, looking to impose their will on Boston on the interior and the boards, with center Timofey Mozgov once again getting off to a hot start as Celtics defender Tyler Zeller rotated off him to help on penetration by James or Irving. With Mozgov locked in at the rim and J.R. Smith hitting a couple of early 3-pointers, the Cavs held a 19-10 lead midway through the opening quarter. The sunny start soon turned dark, though, as power forward Kevin Love suffered a shoulder injury while battling Celtics center Kelly Olynyk on this scramble for a rebound:
Love would not return, limiting him to just under 5 1/2 minutes of floor time after his star turn in Game 3.
With Love unavailable, Cavs head coach David Blatt turned first to instant-energy reserve power forward Tristan Thompson, who had done tons of damage on the offensive glass against the Celtics' bigs over the previous three games. Blatt later made a somewhat unexpected addition to his frontcourt rotation, dusting off little-used veteran big man Kendrick Perkins ... who promptly made his presence felt, essentially body-blocking and shoving Celtics defender Jae Crowder (who had gotten extra physical with multiple Cavs during this series, including delivering a shot to Iman Shumpert on the previous trip up the floor) to the ground in the course of "setting a pick" for LeBron:
Perkins received a flagrant foul-1 for his screen and shove, but was allowed to remain in the game; he and Crowder also received technical fouls on the play. The fracas got the TD Garden crowd plenty amped up, but didn't spark to the C's to greater on-court success. The combination of James and Irving initiating off the bounce, swarming Cavs defense and Boston missing some makeable looks — including all eight 3-point attempts in the first half — put the Celtics in a 21-point hole at halftime.
The physicality only escalated after halftime, as Smith responded to Crowder shoving him in the lane by swinging his right fist backward, clocking Crowder on the side of the face and sending him crumpling to the ground:
Smith received a flagrant foul-2 and an automatic ejection for blasting Crowder in the face. After the league office reviews the tape of the play, it seems all but certain that Smith will miss at least part of the Cavs' next series.
As he fell to the floor, Crowder's left leg got caught underneath him, leading him to reach for it in pain as he collected himself on the deck. He'd be helped off the floor and back to the locker room, and would not return, with the Celtics saying he'd suffered a left knee sprain during the fall.
Smith's ejection seemed to stall the Cavaliers, who shot a dismal 4-for-20 in the third quarter en route to just 13 points, by far their lowest single-quarter point total of the series. Crowder's exit, on the other hand, seemed to fuel the Celtics, who saw lead scorer Isaiah Thomas find some life get on track with an 11-point frame after missing his first 10 shots from the field. A Jared Sullinger tip-in of a missed layup by Marcus Smart drew Boston within nine heading into the fourth quarter, giving Celtics fans hope for one last push that could extend the series.
It wouldn't come, though. As was the case in Game 2, James and Irving took over for Cleveland in the fourth quarter, each scoring 10 points in the final frame. The Cavs also got a major boost from Shumpert, who added to the strong work he'd provided defensively and on the glass by attacking the basket, getting to the line six times and scoring eight of his 15 points (to go with 10 boards, three blocks and two steals) in the final 12 minutes.
The Celtics mounted a valiant effort. The three-headed backcourt monster of Thomas, Bradley and Smart teaming with Sullinger to score 28 of Boston's 32 fourth-quarter points, doing their level best to stave off elimination. Thomas hit a layup with 37 seconds left cut the deficit to eight, then interfered with James' inbounds pass while he stood out-of-bounds, which the refs missed badly, to create a Bradley steal that led to a Cleveland foul and a pair of free throws that made it a two-possession game. The final-minute stand came up short, though, as an after-timeout 3-point look that Boston head coach Brad Stevens dialed up for little-used reserve Luigi Datome came up short, with Irving coming away with the rebound and heading to the line for two more foul shots to put the game out of reach.
In most circumstances, a four-game first-round sweep leaves the victors elated and the vanquished deflated. In this case, though, those roles might be reversed.
The Celtics come out of the defeat with plenty of optimism for the future, having taken real steps forward in the second half of the season, Stevens establishing himself as one of the league's brightest young coaching stars, and plenty of options — as many as five first-round picks in the next two drafts, young players on movable deals and as much as $30 million in cap space this summer — available for general manager Danny Ainge as he looks to pursue the top-flight talent that Boston will need to kick its rebuild into high gear. While Stevens and company would've preferred to win, of course, nobody in Boston's coming away from this first-round exit feeling despair about the future.
On Cleveland's side, though, Game 4 sure seems like a very costly victory. Love's status for the remainder of the postseason isn't yet clear, but if the shoulder injury he suffered limits his impact or sidelines him entirely, it'll leave the Cavaliers without a major weapon and a key piece of their offense as they face off against the stiffer competition ahead. If Smith is indeed suspended for at least one game of the second round, Blatt might have to replace two members of the starting lineup that's ranked as one of the NBA's very best units since coming together in mid-January against (in all likelihood) a Bulls side that's got frontcourt depth, plenty of experience, defensive acumen and a livelier-than-many-expected version of Derrick Rose.
That's hardly an ideal situation for LeBron and company. They'll have to take solace in the fact that, after taking care of their business quickly, they'll have some time to rest up and game-plan for whatever comes next.
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