The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics with one clear goal in mind — bounce back from an unlikely loss in Sunday’s Game 3 and reassert the inevitability of a third-straight appearance in the NBA Finals. For the first half, though, the Cavs’ dominance looked anything but assured. A poor start for LeBron James and questionable defense allowed the Celtics to open up a 10-point lead at the break, which pushed the Cavs out of their comfort zone and at least raised questions about their ability to meet the level of Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors. Win or lose, the Cavs needed to prove something to both neutrals and themselves.
It’s safe to say they did just that in the second half. Led by a terrific performance from Kyrie Irving and a return to form for LeBron, the Cavs shot 71.1 percent (27-of-38) from the field in the second half and controlled the course of crunch time for a 112-99 win. Remarkably, Irving and James outscored the Celtics 48-42 in the second half.
The Cavs’ come-from-behind win brings them one victory from the franchise’s fourth conference title and the seventh-straight NBA Finals appearance for LeBron James (and James Jones!). Cleveland now leads the series 3-1 and can claim six full days of rest before the start of the next round with a close-out win in Thursday’s Game 5 at TD Garden.
While LeBron’s final line was impressive, Game 4 clearly belonged to Kyrie. The Cavs’ point guard finished with a career playoff-high 42 points (15-of-22 FG, 4-of-7 3FG, 8-of-9 FT), topping the 41 he put up in Game 5 of last season’s NBA Finals. This was Irving at his best — taking many defenders off the dribble, finishing at the rim with a variety of acrobatic lay-ups, and scoring even when his opponents did everything right. There is no answer for Kyrie when he plays this well, because his shot-making renders the defense irrelevant.
Better yet, he saved his best stretches for when the Cavaliers needed them most. The first such period came over the final six minutes of the second quarter after LeBron James picked up a historic fourth foul with 6:46 on the clock. While the Cavs are a very deep team, their 2017 postseason success has rested largely on the greatness of James. The Celtics led 43-33 at the time of his departure, and the prospect of more than a half-quarter on the bench seemed to put the Cavs in a very rough spot.
Irving responded by scoring 12 of Cleveland’s final 14 points in the second quarter, allowing them to break even without LeBron and head into the halftime break down a manageable 10 points. No team wants to trail by double digits after two quarters, but the fact that things didn’t get worse after James’s four fouls registered as a positive. In fact, the Cavs’ ability to perform well without LeBron arguably changed the course of Game 4.
Cavs w/o LeBron, regular season: -222, 1182 mins
Cavs w/o LeBron, playoffs before Game 4: -28, 69 mins
Cavs w/o LeBron, tonight: +6, 9:44
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) May 24, 2017
Irving didn’t lose any momentum during halftime. He scored another 21 points in the third quarter with excellent efficiency and continued to get to the rim and finish no matter the level of Boston’s defense. Kyrie even twisted his ankle on one drive and appeared no less agile or unguardable after it.
At the same time, the Cavs defense improved its rotations and raised its activity levels to limit the Celtics to just 23 points and 1-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Cleveland’s 40-23 third period turned the game around completely — suddenly, a tough contest turned into one they controlled heading into the fourth.
Holding on late proved much easier as James moved past the lack of rhythm caused by his early foul trouble. What seemed like an off-night for LeBron finished as an impressive one. He put up 34 points on 15-of-27 shooting and led the Cavs’ crunch-time efforts to seal the result. His three-pointer with 3:51 remaining started a game-closing 9-2 run that turned a six-point game into a comfortable victory. If nothing else, Game 4 served as a reminder that LeBron can struggle and still play at an All-Star level.
The Celtics can take pride in this performance. They carried over the competitive spirit that served them so well in Game 3 and for a time looked on their way to an unlikely evening of the series at 2-2. Their excellent ball movement in the first half exposed many of the same defensive lapses that troubled the Cavs so thoroughly over the final months of the regular season and appeared to buttress the argument that the offense was less predictable without the injured Isaiah Thomas. Boston shot a merely solid 21-of-45 from the field (46.7 percent) in the first half, but their 18 assists (including five players with three apiece) and one turnover seemed like a potential winning formula. Holding the Cavs to just one offensive rebound before the break was a meaningful accomplishment, too.
Cleveland amped up its defensive effort in the second half, but it’s also arguable that the visitors ran out of energy. The Celtics are known for their depth, but starters Al Horford, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder played at least 37 minutes in Game 4 after seeing at least 36 in Game 4. None of this group is used to carrying a major offensive workload along with this series’ difficult defensive responsibilities, and that increased effort showed. It’s not clear that the offense would be better with Thomas still active in this series, but the Celtics would at least be able to rely on their usual formula.
The Cavs, for their part, returned to what they know works. The early defensive struggles are cause for concern, especially as they get closer to facing the Warriors’ incredible attack, but the greatness of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving can often cover for lapses in other areas. These are two of the best players in the NBA, and they’ve already proven that their scoring can carry an underdog to a championship. We can’t wait to see what they do next.
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