By MyFM's Jake Archer - There are many acceptable reactions to have after watching last night's 111-102 Celtics loss in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Want to blame Brad Stevens for having two mediocre games in a row? How about directing your frustration to the actual players on the court and their sloppy performance? You could complain about the officiating if you want too (although this is probably the most ridiculous reaction to have). Myself? I'm going to go ahead and be partly mad about all of those things while maintaining my composure and saying that what we saw makes sense to me.
After Games 1 and 2, Boston fans got nuts and the whole country didn't help. Everyone was heaping praise on the Celtics and saying that the series was over (how quickly we forget that LeBron James is on the other side). Articles were being written about the unexpected greatness of the young C's and talking heads were wondering if they should deal Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward come the offseason because they didn't need them. I'll admit, I let some of this get me as well. The excitement of it all had me talking myself into beating Cleveland in 5 and then stealing a game or two against Golden State. It was ludicrous to jump to these conclusions so early.
Was it impressive what Boston did in the first two games of the series? Yes. They were down two of their best players and the rotation was reduced to eight men. It was really all about the fact that they were tougher, more athletic and better coached than Cleveland. They weren't supposed to get this far and somehow they'd managed to already best what they did last year. Reality still had to hit though. They weren't going to cruise past a guy that hasn't missed the Finals in like a decade. Not with any group, let alone one that was made up of mostly young players that hadn't been here before. We should have pumped the brakes and realized that this was going to be a dogfight.
Even after getting blown out in Game 3, I wasn't all that worried yet. The Celtics would respond and none of that would carry over because it's easier to get past a blowout than a heartbreaker, right? My thoughts heading into last night were that Boston would come back with a vengeance, but lose by a possession due to some bad calls, and tough breaks. Maybe if they had shown up for all 48 minutes, that would have been the case. Instead, it was ugly again.
After Stevens kept his starting five close to the vest pregame (he pulled a Belichick and told the reporters "We will start five people."), he ultimately went with Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Terry Rozier (the same group he's gone with all series). They didn't get off to a good start and put the C's in an early hole. The team shot 27 percent in the first 12 minutes while missing dunks and looking off their game again. Morris picked up three quick fouls and that would hamper him the rest of the night.
Boston fell behind by 19 at one point in the first half while Cleveland shot the lights out and played great defense. The crowd was going wild and all the momentum was in favor of the home team early on. It honestly felt like this game could end up being a total blowout like the one before it. The Cavs led 68-53 at the break and the Celtics needed to answer. At times during the second half, it felt like they were but they never had enough to get back into it completely. Bad calls by the refs plus stretches of total meltdowns kept Boston from getting to where they wanted to go. I can honestly say it was probably the dumbest, most frustrating, and inexcusable basketball that they have played all year.
The Cavs committed 19 turnovers in the second half and somehow Boston couldn't take full advantage. Kevin Love was in foul trouble and couldn't get in a rythmn, yet the C's couldn't take advantage of that either. When the second best player on the opposing team scores just 9 points, you have to win that game. Love did find other ways to contribute (eleven boards and three assists with a few glorious outlet passes) but overall his game wasn't great. The guy who kept Cleveland afloat behind James was Kyle Korver, who came off the bench to score 14 points while seemingly making every shot. Korver was all over the place and even added three blocks (two on the same possession over Jaylen Brown) and four rebounds.
LeBron again had a great game, and he took over when he needed to. James scored 44 points (his 25th career postseason game with at least 40 and sixth this year) while grabbing five rebounds, three assists and two steals. Tristan Thompson and George Hill also played well for Cleveland and both scored in double figures. The only Cavs not to see action were Ante Zizic, Jose Calderon and Rodney Hood.
The Celtics got double digit points from all five starters, but Brown was the leader with 25. Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes gave the C's almost nothing off of the bench. Smart joined Morris in taking too many shots that he shouldn't while Baynes was so hesitant and so bad that it pains me to even see him getting minutes. Luckily, Brad never turned to Guerschon Yabusele, Greg Monroe or Abdel Nader. The whole thing was just a mess.
At the end of the day, LeBron bullied the C's while moving closer to another NBA Finals and passing the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most postseason field goals made. He and his teammates were able to hold off any hopes of a Boston comeback (they pulled within seven with four and a half minutes left), but they won by just nine despite terrible play from the Celtics. The series is tied up and now it's a best of three to see who gets to move on. We've been here before with the Celtics and LeBron, so it feels right. Hopefully we can hold him down and not let him come back from a 2-0 deficit for a third time in his career.
The C's are scurrying home to get in front of their fans and what is sure to be a wild Boston crowd for Game 5. They are 9-0 at home this postseason and they'll need to continue that. They can win this series by just taking the games at home and still falling to 1-7 on the road, but I hope that's not how they plan on doing it. They'll need the fans (and guys like Irving and Hayward on the bench) and they'll need to dig deep, get up and respond to adversity as they have all year. These Celtics never like to make anything easy, but I'm confident they'll get the job done. Hustle plays will be key, but it'll come down to more than that. Adjustments have to be made and confidence (not cockiness) needs to come back. No more switching because that's been a disaster and no more making it easy on LeBron. They've got to find a way to frustrate him again because he's so smart and can read the floor better than anyone. Taking advantage of his, and the team's, turnovers will be a must as well.
Who is the pressure on now? I'd say it's pretty even. LeBron doesn't want to come up short against this young and inexperienced squad but the Celtics don't want to collapse. Game 5 tips off on Wednesday night in Boston at 8:30 p.m.