(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/David Richard)
LeBron James and the Cavaliers turned this series into a best-of-three after posting back-to-back victories in Cleveland. James was again at his all-world best in Monday night’s 111-102 victory in Game 4, finishing with 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting, and getting help as the Cavaliers raced to a 16-point lead after the first quarter and turned back multiple challenges from the Celtics.
Kyle Korver came off the bench to score 14 points and also shined defensively with an unexpected three blocked shots. Tristan Thompson contributed 13 points and 12 rebounds and George Hill also had 13 points to help pick up Kevin Love, who finished with nine points on three-of-12 shooting.
James has now recorded six 40-point games in this postseason, tying him with Allen Iverson (2001) for the third-most by any player. Only Michael Jordan (seven, 1989) and Jerry West (eight, 1965) have recorded more in one postseason, and the way James is playing and needs to play, it is possible he could run the table and set the record while reaching the NBA Finals for the eighth straight year and dragging Cleveland to their fourth in a row.
Jaylen Brown scored 25 points and Terry Rozier added 16, 11 assists, six rebounds and three steals for the Celtics, who will look to regain their mojo in the friendly and raucous confines of TD North Garden. Boston are 9-0 there this postseason, averaging 110.1 points and shooting 38.7 percent from 3-point range while limiting opponents to 98.8 points per contest after winning the first two games of this series by a combined 38 points.
The Celtics are hoping the return to Boston will get Jayson Tatum going again. He has averaged 16.0 points in this series and failed to reach 20 in any of the first four contests after contributing 23.6 points per contest in the five-game semifinal series win over Philadelphia that capped a franchise-rookie record of seven straight 20-point games by the No. 3 overall pick.
Three keys to the game
Cavs getting depth in scoring - For most of the season, there has always been a lack of consistency for the Cavaliers getting a third scorer behind James and Love. Some nights it has been Korver, some nights Hill, some nights J. R. Smith, some nights Jeff Green and some nights Tristan Thompson.
While Korver is the closest thing the Cavaliers have in terms of a consistent third scorer, it is when Hill, Smith, Green and Thompson do just enough offensively that it creates that moment of indecision for the Celtics defensively in which anyone could be an option while everyone is an option. In the first two games in Boston, the aforementioned quartet shot 31.8 percent (14 for 44), including two for 15 from 3-point range, and totaled 40 points.
In the two wins at Cleveland, they shot 45.9 percent (28 for 61), hit ten of 25 from beyond the arc and accounted for 77 points. Thompson and Hill reached double figures in both games, and both had key buckets down the stretch Monday night to keep Boston at bay.
Is it time to stop switching on James? - This is written with the understanding the Celtics are not going to stop James, that they are simply making it difficult for him to score. That said, there were too many times in the second half Monday night the Cavaliers ran James through screens resulting in switches that left Rozier alone guarding James giving up seven inches and (conservatively) 60 pounds.
Since James then operates in space after the switch occurs, three things can happen. He can find the slip screener immediately cutting to the basket or he can back down the smaller Rozier into the paint and either wait for a cutter to come into the lane or take a mid-range fadeaway. While not the easiest shot, taking it without a hand in your face decreases the degree of difficulty.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who has become the darling of the basketball media with his ATO plays and solid coaching overall, may have been playing coy when he told reporters Tuesday that "we didn't feel like that's what beat us," but it was surprising to hear him concede he may live with it to offset Cleveland getting open looks at the 3-point line.
Finally, an area revealed where LeBron James is NOT good at playoff basketball! - This will be the 15th game in James' storied postseason career in which James is playing a Game 5 with the series tied. His overall numbers in such contests are in line with his career averages as he has totaled 32.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game while shooting 49.3 percent.
James is 0-1 in such games this season as he was held to 22 points as the Indiana Pacers throttled the Cavaliers 121-87 on April 21 in what turned out to be their final win of the season and fell to 8-6 in this tie-breaking Game 5s.
But the superstar has failed to beat the Celtics in three previous tries with the series tied at 2 in a crucial Game 5. He had 35 points and five assists in a 96-89 loss at Boston in Game 5 of in the 2008 conference semifinals, a series the Cavs lost in seven.
James then endured one of the worst playoff games of his career two years later at home when he made three of 14 shots and finished with 15 points in a 120-88 thrashing by the Celtics that contributed to him leaving Cleveland for South Beach after that six-game, second-round series loss.
In 2012, he had 30 points and 13 rebounds in a 94-90 loss to the Celtics in Game 5 of the conference finals. However, that loss marked a turning point in James' career as he responded with his Boston Massacre of 45 points and 15 rebounds and hit 19 of 26 shots as Miami rolled to a 98-79 victory in an elimination game. That win sparked Miami to their second NBA title in franchise history and was James' first.
Matchup to watch
PG George Hill vs PG Terry Rozier - Though he recorded his first double-double of the postseason in Monday night's Game 4 loss, Rozier's home and road splits in the playoffs continue to be eye-catching. The Celtics guard is now back at Boston, where he has averaged 20.0 points, 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 45.5 percent (30 for 66) from 3-point range and 46.2 percent overall.
Rozier has also compiled a 5.2 assists-to-turnover ratio at TD North Garden and has almost canceled out his ten turnovers in those nine games by recording eight steals.
Hill had two of his best playoff games in helping Cleveland level this series, scoring 13 points in Games 3 and 4 and not have a turnover in nearly 68 minutes of action. The Cavaliers guard went six for nine Monday night, and Cleveland will need that type of aggressiveness, and not the tentative player who went a combined three for eight and totaled eight points in 62 minutes in the two losses at Boston.
Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup
PG - George Hill | SG - J. R. Smith | C - Tristan Thompson | SF - Kyle Korver | PF - LeBron James
Boston Celtics projected starting lineup
PG - Terry Rozier | SG - Jaylen Brown | C - Al Horford | SF - Jayson Tatum | PF - Marcus Morris
Unless you are a die-hard Celtics fan who is too proud to put James in your DFS lineups, there is no reason the Cavaliers superstar should not be in one. But in the event statistical reasons are needed, consider James has averaged 30.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists in 19 career playoff games at Boston and has topped 40 points on three occasions after scoring 42 in Game 2.
In the four games after Love has been held to single digits previously in this postseason, he has averaged 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 39.1 percent (nine for 23) from 3-point range.
Brown has averaged 21.0 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 52.6 percent from the field in his last five games and has also hit 13 of 26 from beyond the arc in that span. He has scored 20 or more points in five of the seven postseason games at home he has finished and is averaging 18.6 points in eight contests there while connecting on 21 of 50 from beyond the arc.
It seems fitting that with a series tied at two games apiece that the oddsmakers would list this game as a pick 'em.
The home team has covered in all four games, allowing Cleveland to improve to 8-3 against the spread in their last 11 against teams with a .600 winning percentage or better and 10-4 in their last 14 versus Atlantic Division teams. The Cavaliers, though, are 8-17 versus the number in their last 25 road games versus teams who are above .500 at home.
Boston, however, have shown a resiliency that rewards bettors. They are 5-1 against the spread in their last six games coming off a loss and 10-2 against the spread in their last 12 when coming off a loss versus the number. The Celtics are 18-6 against their spread in their last 24 home games, 12-5 in their last 17 overall and 9-4 in their last 13 versus Central Division opponents.
The over/under is 206 points, with the under hitting in five of the last seven games between the teams and posting a 10-3 mark in the last 13 played in Boston. While the under has a 5-2 record in Boston's last seven games, the over has posted a 10-3 mark in their last 13 home games and 7-1 in the last eight when the Celtics have come off a loss.
The over is 5-2 in Cleveland's last seven games when the Cavaliers are coming off a win, but the under is 5-2 in their last seven against above-.500 teams.
While there is endless debate about how to slow down James, one quote from Stevens about James' defense stood out heading into Game 5 regarding Cleveland's defense of Tatum, who shot 43.4 percent from 3-point range in the regular season but has made just three of ten in this series.
Stevens noted Tuesday that "when LeBron guards the ball handler in pick-and-roll, he switches a ton, which, again, as we just talked about, keeps them out of rotations, allows them to lock into their guys, and they're good at it. Sometimes you have to take what's given to you."
That was a microcosm of Boston's problem in their two losses at Cleveland in that the Celtics also didn't take away anything from the Cavaliers while they were on defense. Yes, it is inevitable James will hunt out the Rozier matchup, but there is a night-and-day difference when both Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart guard James in different facets of James' offensive skill set.
Morris can usually prevent James from getting to the basket on the bounce with his right hand, which almost always ends up as a layup or an and-1, and Smart is quick and feisty enough that James' fadeaway jumper goes from being 12 to 15 feet against Rozier to 15 to 18 feet, which makes it a lower-percentage shot.
It is understandable Stevens does not want to burn those 12 fouls by Morris and Smart by not switching, but the Celtics need to introduce variety and aggressiveness when Cleveland begin their cycle of screens offensively to get James' favorable matchups, especially when Korver is not on the court.
The latter will assuredly come with the venue switching back to Boston. Cleveland played an "old-man's game" Monday night in which they perfectly straddled the line between physical, aggressive defense and "gooning it up," which has become the hot phrase of this series. The issue is whether Morris, Smart and Al Horford can help the Celtics walk that line in Game 5.
For Cleveland, if they continue to get production from Thompson in the paint to make life miserable for Horford defensively, they can steal this game. Thompson has averaged 9.8 points and 9.3 rebounds, with the former number somewhat impressive given he does not get plays called for him and the majority of his 17 baskets have come on either putbacks or dump-offs.
But yes, it all still circles back to James. This talk of trusting his teammates to score is mostly psychobabble since James has to set the tone offensively with the types of shots he takes. When he settles, the Cavaliers settle. When he moves, they move. If they get 40 points from players other than James, Love and Korver, there is a good chance the Cavaliers win.
When they get 40 from that group on top of 40 from James, the Cavs will head back to "The Land" with a chance to finish this series off following a 103-98 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on ESPN and nationally in Canada on TSN. Tip-off time is 8:30 pm EDT.
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