8300 PM EST, TNT – Line: Cavaliers -14.5, Over/Under: 216
Do we actually have a Series now, or has the inevitable simply been prolonged? That is the question as the Boston Celtics look to square things away with the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals from Quicken Loans Arena, after shocking the world Sunday Night. Simply put, this is not how this Series was supposed to play out; the top-seeded Celtics (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference) were humiliated in Games One and Two by a combined fifty-seven points at TD Garden in Massachusetts, in which All-Star Point Guard Isaiah Thomas (28.9 PTS, 46.3% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 5.9 AST, 0.9 STL) suffered a Right Hip Strain that will likely require surgery, sidelining him for the remainder of the Playoffs. So down 0-2 with their leading scorer out for the Series, and headed to Cleveland, what does this team do? If you had answered “rally back from a 21-point deficit en route to upsetting the Cavs 111-108” then you would be correct. For about half of the contest, Game Three of this set played true to form, with the visiting side trailing 66-50 at Halftime, as the hosts rained three-pointers down among them, netting fourteen of them. Then the tide began to change. Brad Stevens’ charges emerged from the midway point with a clear chip on their shoulder, grinding their way back to even the score at 95-95 with just over three minutes left to play. Later, after the home side tied the contest at 108 apiece with ten seconds remaining, Celtics Guard Avery Bradley (16.3 PTS, 46.3% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.2 STL) launched a three-pointer from the Left Wing right in front of his team’s Bench, and watched the ball dance on the rim for what must have seemed like an eternity before falling through the net with 0.1 seconds left on the clock. Sunday’s performance was a testament to their resilience, as they outscored the Cavaliers 61-42 in the Second Half, on the strength of a number of outstanding performances from various members of the Supporting Cast; in place of the injured Thomas, Marcus Smart (10.6 PTS, 35.9% FG, 28.3% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.6 STL) scored a team-high twenty-seven points on 8-of-14 shooting (57.1%), including 7-of-10 from beyond the arc (70.0%), along with five rebounds, seven assists, a pair of steals, and a block, while the pair of Kelly Olynyk (9.0 PTS, 51.2% FG, 35.4% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.6 STL) and Jonas Jerebko (3.8 PTS, 43.5% FG, 34.6% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 0.9 AST) added a cumulative twenty-five points off the Bench, with the latter nailing a huge jumper to give the Celtics a two-point lead with thirty seconds to go. As a team, Boston shot 46.2% from the field, including 16-of-40 from downtown (45.0%), while dishing out a healthy twenty-eight assists, and pummeling their counterpart in the Paint, besting them 36-24. Stevens’ troops woke up on the defensive end, harassing the hosts throughout the Second Half, particularly LeBron James (who we’ll get into shortly), forcing sixteen turnovers, which they managed to parlay into fourteen points. Now that Sunday’s shocker is in the books, the Celtics must carry this intensity into tonight’s affair, while finding a way to cox better performances from their more heralded players; despite draining the game-winner, Bradley struggled throughout the majority of the outing, shooting a miserable 8-of-23 (34.8%), while the likes of Al Horford (14.0 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.3 BLK) and Jae Crowder (13.9 PTS, 46.3% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL) weren’t much better netting a combined 13-of-32 overall (40.6%). After all, it may be asking a bit much for three guys that collectively average 23.4 points to erupt for another forty-two points, particularly on the road, where Role Players notoriously don’t travel very well.
Meanwhile, what the hell just happened to the Cavaliers (51-31, 2nd in Eastern Conference)? Winners of ten straight Playoff Games, and absolutely humbling the Celtics in their own gym in the first two installments of this Series, Cleveland looked well on their way towards taking a commanding three-game lead, effectively sealing a trip to a third consecutive NBA Finals. Leading by fifteen points at Halftime, and as many as twenty-one in the Third Quarter, the home side inexplicably took their foot off the gas pedal, and couldn’t find a way to get their momentum back before it was too late. Indeed, complacency can be a Champion’s worst enemy, and for the first time in these Playoffs, Tyronn Lue’s charges appeared so. In the First Half, they were white-hot, shooting a blistering 20-of-34 from the field (58.8%), including 14-of-21 from beyond the arc (66.7%), only to cool down considerably over the final two frames shooting 11-of-24 from the floor (45.8%), including a dismal 2-of-14 from downtown (14.3%). In fact, that only thing that kept this contest from becoming an even more monumental breakdown was the fact that the Cavs took residence from the Free-Throw Line, calmly knocking down 28-of-36 free-throws, nineteen more than their opponent. And then there is the curious case of LeBron James (26.4 PTS, 54.8% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 8.6 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.6 BLK), who after using the Celtics as his own personal punching bag simply disappeared in the Second Half of Sunday’s defeat. The contrast is stunning; in Games One and Two, the four-time MVP averaged 34.0 points on an insane 61.9% shooting, 6.5 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, and 1.5 blocks, but in Game Three he ended the night with an uncharacteristic eleven points on a miserable 4-of-13 shooting (30.8%), six rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block, but also six turnovers. The final stanza marked only the second time in his Postseason Career (the other being against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals) that he actually went scoreless, going 0-of-3 with his only points coming from the Charity Stripe. The poor performance broke a string of eight consecutive thirty-point games in the Playoffs, ultimately coming up one shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbbar’s record nine such outings in 1970. With all that said, there were still plenty of things that went right for the Cavaliers, who in addition to owning a sizable advantage from the Free-Throw Line, also battered Boston on the glass, outrebounding them 46-38, with Tristan Thompson (8.1 PTS, 60.0% FG, 9.2 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.1 BLK) and Kevin Love (19.0 PTS, 42.7% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 11.1 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.9 STL) accounting for twenty-three boards on their own. Love continued to his stellar Postseason play, scoring twenty-eight points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%), contributing to his team’s early three-pointer barrage with seven treys in the First Half. Kyrie Irving (25.2 PTS, 47.3% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.2 STL) led the team with twenty-nine points on an efficient 10-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-6 from three (66.7%), with a pair of rebounds, seven assists, and a steal.