3 takeaways from the Celtics’ frustrating Game 4 loss to the Cavaliers

"We just dug ourselves a hole."

Terry Rozier Jayson Tatum
After watching a replay of a third-quarter play, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Morris don't agree with the call. –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

“We talked about it in the locker room,” rookie Jayson Tatum said. “Best of three to go to the NBA Finals. It’s pretty exciting.”

The Celtics-Cavaliers series is knotted at two games apiece. Cleveland defended its home court Monday with a 111-102 win — the first conference-final game to be decided by single digits this postseason.

“It was a much better fight,” forward Jaylen Brown said of his team’s bounce-back performance after suffering a blowout loss Saturday. “We just didn’t get over the hump. We played some good basketball, we fought. Some things didn’t go our way. Some calls didn’t go our way, but you can’t make excuses.”

The Cavaliers led for the final 44 minutes of the game, but the Celtics had several opportunities to pull within two possessions. They just couldn’t connect.

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“We won’t hang our heads,” Brown said. “We responded. That’s what we wanted to do. We came back and we fought. It was a better game and a better effort.”

Here’s what we learned from Game 4:

The outcome could have been much better, but it also could have been much worse.

After holding an early 10-9 edge midway through the first quarter, things quickly fell apart for the Celtics. The Cavaliers, who seemed to be picking up right where they left off in Game 3, finished the quarter on a 25-8 run to take a 16-point lead.

“I was generally pleased with how we performed the first five minutes of the game,” coach Brad Stevens said. “It was just the end of the first quarter . . . We’re not going to play perfect and we’re going to have our moments, but we can’t have those swoons that we had at the end of the quarter.”

Boston shot an abysmal 26.9 percent from the field and made just one of its seven three-point attempts in the opening 12 minutes. Cleveland, on the other hand, shot 60 percent from the field and made three of six three-point attempts. With Al Horford logging two (missed) shot attempts and Brown boasting a 14.3 shooting percentage, the Celtics were battling similar offensive struggles from Game 3.

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“We just dug ourselves a hole,” Brown said.

The Celtics entered halftime with a 15-point deficit — one that probably could have been even larger, given Cleveland’s hot hands — but Boston managed to consistently keep the game in reach.

The resilient bunch slowly began to chip away — and pulled within seven in the fourth quarter — but was unable to string together a substantial run. In the possessions after cutting the lead to single digits, the Celtics shot a combined one for six from the field and turned the ball over three times.

According to Brown, the team was playing “too fast” and “too excited.” The Celtics needed to slow the game down. Brown called the blown opportunities “very frustrating,” but noted, “that’s life.” Perhaps even more frustrating, however, were the 15 points the Cavaliers scored off of the Celtics’ 15 missed dunks and layups.

“We still had every opportunity to get into this game and to win,” Brown said.

The Celtics need to ignore the officiating.

Too often were the Celtics caught with their hands in the air, looking for a bail-out call after driving to the hoop. Sure, the referees made some calls that displeased both teams, but the Celtics cannot allow the officiating to rattle their play.

Marcus Morris picked up three fouls in the first quarter, which undoubtedly (and understandably) affected his ability to be aggressive guarding LeBron James — who scored 44 points on 17-for-28 shooting.

“It’s tough,” Morris said. “You’re already playing against the best player in the league, so when you can’t even be a little bit physical, it’s tough to guard him. You can’t do anything . . . We almost had to give up baskets.”

Morris, who has previously been fined for his remarks about the officiating, referred to some of the calls as “ticky-tack fouls.” Early in the second half, he was hit with an offensive foul for kicking his leg out on a made three-point shot that would have cut Cleveland’s lead to 10. The call was one of 17 whistles during the third quarter.

“They played a good game and can’t take nothing from them,” Morris said. “But I thought the physicality of the game was taken away. It’s tough.”

When asked if the frequent whistles in the third-quarter disrupted the flow of the game, Smart dodged the question.

“You said it, not me,” he said. “I don’t know what the fouls were in the quarter. I don’t know what to tell you about that. We can only control what we can control.”

Other Celtics kept mum.

“I ain’t got nothing to say,” Tatum said. “I ain’t got nothing to say about that one.”

The Celtics need to be more disciplined.

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The Celtics did a lot of things right to try and mount a comeback Monday, but they also made several questionable decisions. Brown drove to the basket for a missed dunk with 13 seconds left in the first half, while Stevens screamed for the team to hold the ball for the last shot. Marcus Smart — who, at times, was particularly frustrating on the offensive end of the floor — had five turnovers. The Celtics saved the ball right under the basket and passed directly to a Cavalier twice.

“I think we had to tighten up a little bit more and we didn’t do that,” guard Terry Rozier said. “We let it slip away a couple times . . . That’s something that we have to get better at, especially being on the road.”

The Celtics were out-scored in the paint, 50-38, and missed 13 shots in the paint in the first half alone. The Cavaliers on the hand missed 15 total shots in the first half. Boston seemingly lost its focus when trying to connect on point-blank opportunities. There were flashes of crisp offense, but the Celtics also logged fewer passes (242) than its postseason average (298.8) for the second straight game.

Not all was bad, however. The Celtics out-scored the Cavaliers, 84-77, after a dismal first-quarter. If Boston can move the ball and attack the paint in Game 5, things are probably going to improve. Plus, the team is returning to the TD Garden, where they are undefeated this postseason.

“We’re going to learn from this game and go back home and protect our home court,” Horford said.

“Back to the crib,” Smart added. “We play well at the crib.”

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