CLEVELAND – All series the Boston Celtics’ game plan on LeBron James was solemn and simple: You can't give him the lane. If it took five men in green to block his way and prevent the easy dunks and foul-line trips, then so be it.
Make him shoot from the perimeter. Make him pass. Make someone else beat you.
This was another night where it seemed to work to perfection, James sitting at just 6-of-19 shooting in Game 4 of the Eastern semifinals. He was destined for another below-average scoring night, another brickfest from the perimeter that made Cleveland vulnerable.
Now he wasn't going to be denied. There was nothing in the way but open space and a slow-footed Kevin Garnett. James had been bottled up so long, bumped and bruised, crowded and corralled and, here, at last, was what he had been waiting for.
Boston had given him the lane.
With two powerful steps – "Once I get my one-two down, there are not too many guys that can get up there and jump with me" – he sprung high, high, higher, soaring over Garnett before delivering a massive dunk.
Game over. Series squared. Boston scared?
Of the violent force he delivered, James said, "It was a lot of built-up (frustration). I hadn't had a play like that all series."
LeBron James dunks on Boston's Kevin Garnett in the final two minutes of Game 4.
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
He hadn't had anything close. Boston's plan had worked to perfection, except for one thing. Monday they kept gagging away chances to finish Cleveland, to finally win a playoff game on the road, to haul a commanding 3-1 series advantage back to the Garden Wednesday.
With the game and the series there for the taking, the Celtics didn't take it. They took bad shots, made poor decisions and had senseless turnovers. Doc Rivers' rotation was puzzling. His team's intensity lagged as the self-doubt rose.
"We have to play better under stress," Rivers lamented.
They let King James hang around long enough to crush them. They can only hope it wasn't a preview of the entire series.
"This is a game we let slip away," Pierce said.
The Celtics won 66 games in the regular season and boldly talked about a 17th NBA championship, but they've been rattled on the road, particularly unsure of themselves in the fourth quarter.
This was a game begging to be won. James was frustrated, the wear of this series grinding on his nerves. His jumper was off. He kept turning the ball over. At one point, after a hard foul by Pierce, he even had to scream and swear at his mother, Gloria, not to charge the court and go after his opponent.
"Good thing today wasn't Mother's Day," he laughed.
This was a game great teams – championships teams – win. Not just to advance, but to shorten series and rest legs.
Instead, the Celtics managed just 12 fourth-quarter points, including a meager six in the final 8 minutes, 29 seconds of the game.
James, second from right, yells at his mother, Gloria, left, who left her seat after a foul on James by Paul Pierce, second from left, in the second quarter.
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Garnett delivered just two second-half points. Pierce shot 6 of 17. Ray Allen was slow defensively. The Celtics’ new Big Three looked like guys who had never won anything and were unsure how.
They let Boobie Gibson beat them.
All Boston has left is the comforting thought that they play better back at the Garden, which may not even be that comforting.
"Got to win it," P.J. Brown said of Game 5. "We've got to have it."
And that's what's left at this point. The road struggles, 0-5 in the playoffs, have become so pronounced that Wednesday is a must win for Boston. The pressure is squarely on the Celtics because they can't drag themselves back here with a season of hope and promise hanging in the balance.
And worse yet, they've let James have another shot. He's averaging just 18.8 points a game, shooting just 25.6 percent from the floor. And yet the series is 2-2.
"We've done a good job making sure he hasn't had one of those monster games," Brown said.
But how long can that last? Like a dangerous knockout artist, how long are you willing to hope he doesn't connect?
This is how last year's Eastern Conference finals played out against Detroit. The Pistons cruised to a 2-0 lead before letting Cleveland back into it. Then James scored his team's final 25 points in Game 5, a breathtaking performance that essentially ended the series.
That quick. That aggressive.
And that's the thing about LeBron James.
You can't give him the lane.