Boston Celtics

Celtics' mistakes give LeBron and the Cavs new life, leaving Boston in precarious position

#Jayson Tatum Morris

CLEVELAND - Celtics coach Brad Stevens didn't complain about the officials. He didn't panic. He didn't offer any excuses either.

The Cavs defeated the Celtics, 111-102, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals at Quicken Loans Arena, and Stevens was focused on those two fatal three-minute stretches that led to that loss.

"This is a really good basketball team, and we're going to have our moments," Stevens said. "But we can't have the swoons we had at the end of each of those quarters."

Stevens is right. Cleveland outscored Boston 16-5 in those key minutes, which helped the Cavs even the series at two games apiece heading into a pivotal Game 5 Thursday at TD Garden. Those sequences made the difference.

The good news? Boston is 9-0 at home in the 2018 NBA playoffs and still has home-court advantage. The bad news? The Celtics are now 1-6 on the road, must come back to Quicken Loans Arena for Game 6 on Saturday and must beat a LeBron James-led team in two of the next three games.

That's a scary proposition. The Celtics don't need to win one on the road yet, but they might have to get one outside of Boston in a short series if something goes wrong against a Cleveland team that found its mojo in back-to-back wins. James, who scored 44 points, enjoyed his sixth 40-point game in these playoffs.

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Sure Not Now

"It's hard to win on the road as we found out there," Celtics Al Horford said. "I think tonight we played much better once we settled down after the first quarter."

Boston stumbled through the first quarter in each of the last two games. The Celtics trailed 34-18 after one in Game 4, two nights after digging a 15-point hole in a 116-86 loss in Game 3. Cleveland built that lead behind a perfect shooting quarter from James, who punctuated an 11-point effort with a leaping catch over Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart for a layup after a full-court pass from Kevin Love.

Boston, meanwhile, shot just 26.9 percent from the floor in the first quarter. Marcus Morris picked up three fouls. The same connectivity issues Stevens mentioned after Game 3 resurfaced. The Celtics' starting five shot 14-of-37 (37.8 percent) in the first half.

"We defended a lot better in the second half," Stevens said. "We have to have five guys playing all out and honed in defensively. In the first half, we weren't as honed in."

On the flip side, Cleveland's role players showed up again. Kyle Korver tallied 14 points off the bench in only 12 first-half minutes. Tristan Thompson added 13 points and 12 rebounds as the team's starting center while taking on the assignment of guarding Horford. The Cavs shot 50.6 percent from the floor.

Every time Boston threatened to make it a game, James issued a curt response to maintain that cushion.

- The Celtics cut the deficit under 10 for the first time after Brown hit the team's fifth 3-pointer of the second quarter, but James responded with back-to-back buckets to push that lead to 59-46, and the Cavs maintained a 15-point halftime lead.

- Boston trimmed the lead to nine with 9:11 left in the third quarter, and James again responded with back-to-back scores. Love picked up his fifth foul with 7:40 left in the third quarter, but that was cancelled out when Morris picked up his fifth less than a minute later. Fouls - a total of 17 between the teams - gummed up the third quarter, but Cleveland still held an 89-76 advantage.

- Boston cut into a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run, but Love's putback at 6:25 and James' breakaway layup again pushed the lead back to double-digits at 100-89.

The Celtics missed those opportunities and now face the reality of a short series against the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions. Emotions will be high in Cleveland, too. If Boston wins Wednesday, Game 6 could potentially be James' final appearance in a Cavs uniform with free agency looming large.

But if Cleveland wins, then they will be playing for a trip to the NBA Finals. That's the new life given to the Cavs, and that's the scariest proposition of all for Boston now. At some point, the Celtics must punch through, especially if it comes down to the final three minutes of the fourth quarter.

"It's best two out of three to go to NBA Finals," Stevens said. "It doesn't get any better than that. Ultimately, anybody who didn't think this was going to be tough, well, it's going to be tough."

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