CLEVELAND – It’s a familiar part of the playoff process, especially for a young team, but familiarity doesn’t make it any less aggravating. Every tough loss leaves “if-only’’ laments for the loser that linger right up until the next game of a series tips off.
Sometimes that next game doesn’t come until the next season. In that sense, the Celtics are fairly fortunate following their 111-102 loss to LeBron James and other assorted lesser Cavaliers Tuesday night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Cavs have won two at home. The Celtics, as long ago as it may seem right now, after they required one game and the first quarter of another to actually show up in Cleveland, won their two at home.
As multiple Celtics – Brad Stevens, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum – were quick to note after the game, it’s now a three-game series, with two in Boston. All is not lost by any means, even after two ugly losses. They’re still in a good place.
But the next game isn’t until Wednesday, and that leaves hours to ponder the frustrations of Game 4, all of those if-onlys. The Celtics missed 15 shots at the rim, including at least three dunks. Brown, Tatum, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier combined to shoot 26 of 70.
The Celtics as a whole were awful for stretches, especially at the end of quarters, yet admirable in their resilience. Ultimately the bad outweighed the good once again.
The Celtics, who trailed 34-18 after the first quarter of Game 4, started well enough, and certainly better than they did Saturday. With just under 8 minutes to play in the first, the Celtics actually held a lead, 10-9, when Terry Rozier knocked down a jumper. It would be their last lead of the night.
The LeBron locomotive took over, just as he seems to do, in any venue, when he determined his team needs it. (The difference is his supporting cast is much more supportive at home.) With 5 minutes, 41 seconds left in the quarter, he made the Celtics pay for one of their own unforced errors, something he would do more than once en route to an extraordinary 44-point performance that is somehow his norm.
You know the turn the moment you saw it. Horford came up with a steal and flipped the ball ahead to Jayson Tatum, who hammered a contested dunk off the back of the rim. (It would be one of at least three missed slams by the Celtics.) James collected the ball, chugged the other way, powered in for a layup plus a foul on Marcus Morris, who was in foul trouble all night. The hoop-plus-1 put the Cavs up 16-10. By the end of the quarter, Jaylen Brown would also miss a dunk, Semi Ojeleye would hit their only three, and the Cavs would hold a bigger lead (34-18) than they did after a quarter in the Game 1 debacle.
Any time the Celtics got close, or thought they were getting close, James seized control. Brown cut the Cavs lead to 55-46 with a 3-pointer at 3:37 of the second. A little more than 2 minutes later, the Cavs’ lead was back to 18 (66-48), with James scoring six points and seemingly computing every flaw in the Celtics’ defense in real time.
The what-ifs weren’t about their inability to stop James – let’s be real, some madman (or Barbra Streisand) could have 28-year-old Michael Jordan cloned at this point and he wouldn’t limit LeBron defensively. No one can expect to stop him at this point.
No, the what-ifs were about the self-inflicted problems (Smart saved a ball under the Cavs basket, a no-no to every high school coach in America, leading to two cheap Cavs points) or breaks that did not go their way (Morris was called for an offensive foul on the ol’ Reggie Miller kick-the-defender-while-I-bury-a-three move. The hoop, which would have cut the margin to 10 in the third quarter, didn’t count.
The Celtics still managed to trim the lead to 8 with 3:40 left in the third. It took James and friends – notably Larry Nance Jr. – just 2 minutes and 34 seconds to get the lead back to 15.
The Celtics continued to fight in the fourth, never surrendering during the uphill battle. That bodes well for Game 5. Horford missed a three that would have trimmed it to 96-91. And an Aron Baynes free-throw made it 96-89 a minute later, the closest it had been since the first quarter.
You know how the plot turns predictably cruel from here. James did his thing, a thing no one other than Michael Jordan has ever done at such a level, finally punctuating the Cavs’ victory with a dagger three, his first of the game.
Cavs fans need visual cues for most things – they put a Michigan logo or a photo of Tom Brady with Jim Harbaugh on the video board to encourage booing. But their M-V-P! chants for James are organic. They’re also accurate. James Harden will probably win the award this year. But no one is more valuable than James. The Celtics would appreciate it if he would stop proving it in Game 5. He’s already hit them with enough “if-onlys.’’
A few scattered thoughts on Game 4 …
■ Brown led the Celtics with 25 points, grabbed six rebounds, came up with a couple of steals and assists, and yet it’s hard to imagine anyone would consider this a well-played game by the Celtics’ 21-year-old forward. Brown was complicit in the Celtics’ aggravating first quarter, making just one of his first seven shots, and he was overpowered like a teenaged son who trash-talked his old man one too many times when he was matched up on James.
He’s hardly the only Celtic James tormented – somehow the Cavaliers managed to get Rozier switched on to James on multiple occasions in the first half. But watching Brown get pushed around by James stood as a cruel reminder that any discussions of Brown becoming a LeBron Stopper (remember those?) are way too premature.
■ An encouraging sign? Rozier played one of his better road games of this postseason. He had 16 points, 11 assists, and six rebounds, though he shot just 6 of 15. The assist total was a pleasant development given that Rozier has as a habit of missing open teammates, especially screen-setting big men rolling to the hoop. It was far from a flawless performance – he missed 2 of 3 free throws.
■ Tatum finished with 17 points, but that’s a mirage. He didn’t score until nearly three minutes had elapsed in the second quarter. He didn’t get his first rebound until the third quarter and finished with just two. And he’s been too reluctant to take open 3s in both games in Cleveland. He needs to find his aggressiveness when the Celtics get back to the Garden, even at 20, because he’s the purest scorer they have.
■ Marcus Smart was 0 for 5 in the first half, including 0 for 3 from 3-point range, and committed three turnovers. In the Sixers’ series, he was a no-no-YES! shooter. Now he’s a no-no-no-please-Brad-tell-him-to-stop-shooting shooter. He’s an incredible asset to this team – I want him to stay over Rozier when decision-time comes – but his notion that he’s just the man to shoot the Celtics out of a drought is mind-bending.