BOSTON -- The Cleveland Cavaliers might be one win away from facing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for the third straight season, but Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said his team's current opponent in the Celtics is enough of a handful.
"I don't even think about them," Lue said of the Warriors to a small group of traveling Cleveland beat writers following the Cavs' Game 4 win Tuesday. "We're just focused on Boston. The stuff they're running, it's harder to defend than Golden State's [offense] for me, as far as the actions and all the running around and all the guys who are making all the plays, so it's a totally different thing."
"Like, they hit the post, Golden State runs splits and all that stuff, but these guys are running all kinds of s---," Lue said of Boston coach Brad Stevens' schemes. "I'll be like, 'F---.' They're running all kinds of s---, man. And Brad's got them moving and cutting and playing with pace, and everybody is a threat. It's tough, you know, it's tough."
Despite the challenge, the Cavs lead the Eastern Conference finals 3-1 and can close out the series with a Game 5 win at TD Garden on Thursday.
On the surface, Lue's claim sounds ridiculous, what with the Warriors trotting out two former MVPs in Durant and Stephen Curry
Brown is the latest Celtics player to battle a hip ailment.
Isaiah Thomas was shut down for the season after aggravating a lingering hip injury in Game 2 of the series. Avery Bradley has battled through hip pointers on each side of his body since the Washington series in Round 2.
Crowder, who fell awkwardly during the second half, deemed himself "fine" after Tuesday's Game 4 loss while Johnson was active despite being pulled from the starting lineup because of soreness in his shoulder since he was tangled with Tristan Thompson in Boston's Game 3 win.
The Celtics started Kelly Olynyk at center in place of Johnson on Tuesday. The Cavaliers lead the best-of-seven series 3-1.
Brown talked to reporters after Tuesday's game and did not allude to an injury. The rookie swingman is averaging 4.9 points and 2.3 rebounds over 12.9 minutes per game in 16 appearances this postseason.
For much of the first half of Tuesday's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, it might have been OK to ponder that suggestion. After all, the Thomas-less Celtics had rallied from 21 points down for an improbable Game 3 victory two nights earlier and Boston might have played its best basketball of the series over the first 18 minutes of Game 4.
The Celtics were spectacular at the start of Tuesday's game. Boston zipped the ball around the court while generating 17 assists on 21 first-half makes. Boston limited both its turnovers and Cleveland's second-chance opportunities. Maybe most startling of all, the Celtics got LeBron James into early foul trouble.
In that moment, with a double-digit lead and James going to the bench with more than six minutes to play in the second quarter, Celtics fans could daydream about the series coming back to Boston tied 2-2. A win would have restored home-court advantage for the Celtics, while the Cavaliers might have been questioning themselves.
So how, exactly, did the Cavaliers burst that bubble?
"Kyrie Irving and LeBron James would be the two answers," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
Irving and James paired up for 48 second-half points, topping the scoring output of Boston's entire roster by six in that span. The Celtics reverted to bad habits -- turnovers, rushed shots, haphazard rebounding -- and watched Irving and his game-high 42 points rally Cleveland to a 112-99 triumph at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavaliers own a 3-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series and can lock in a much-hyped NBA Finals rubber match with the Golden State Warriors with a win Thursday night.
Boston's second-half struggles juxtaposed to the dominance of Irving and James essentially spoiled the hopes of any sports yakker who was preparing to sound off about Thomas. Game 3 reminded us that Boston can be competitive, but its lack of elite talent is simply more pronounced against a team like the Cavaliers.
The Celtics needed someone they could lean on in the fourth quarter. Al Horford did his best for a stretch, and his back-to-back buckets had the Celtics within six with under six minutes to play. But there would be no clutch baskets, no watch taps, no proclamations that fans inside The Q knew what time it was.
The Celtics had missed their initial chance to extend their 10-point lead when James picked up his fourth foul with 6 minutes, 46 seconds to play in the second quarter. It should have been a chance for the Celtics to really pad their lead before James could return at the start of the third quarter.
Instead, it was the start of Irving's takeover. He scored Cleveland's next 10 points and Boston needed a couple of layups in the final minute of the first half just to restore the 10-point advantage it had when James checked out.
Asked if he felt his team missed an opportunity to stretch its lead with James off the court, Stevens was quick to point out the benefits of a talent-gushing roster.
"They still have two All-Stars out on the court," said Stevens, referencing Irving and Kevin Love. "With the best player in the world [off the court, it's] unreal, but they're still a pretty darned good team when those guys are out there."
The Celtics smothered Irving with praise and suggested there are simply nights when the NBA's best players are capable of taking over on a big stage. But you can't help but wonder if things might have been different if the Celtics had Thomas to steady the offense when it endured brief scoring lulls.
Remember that, during the regular season, the Celtics owned an offensive rating of 113.8 with Thomas on the court, or a half-point better than the Warriors' much-ballyhooed offense. Yes, Thomas has defensive deficiencies because of his 5-foot-9 stature, but the Celtics so very much need him to consistently generate points.
Even James -- who overcame foul trouble and a missed breakaway dunk to finish with 34 points on 15-of-27 shooting -- admitted the Celtics just are not the same without Thomas' presence.
"They're a different team when I.T. is -- I won't say a different team, they run different things just because of I.T. being a huge piece of the puzzle for them, offensively," James said.
Without Thomas, you can make the case that the Cavaliers have the three best players remaining in this series (though Horford could make a case for one of those spots), including James, whom Stevens keeps referring to as "the best player in the world."
James praised Stevens, too, but the talent disparity has simply been too much for even Boston's coach to overcome. For key stretches late in the third quarter, the Celtics leaned heavily on players like rookie Jaylen Brown, second-year guard Terry Rozier and center Tyler Zeller. Clearly, not having Thomas and the trickle-down effect on the roster has an obvious impact.
James gushed again about Stevens' after-timeout plays and how they are among the most creative plays he has seen and how they've routinely given the Celtics quality looks. James essentially credited Stevens for helping Boston remain competitive.
"So they had to kind of reshape [without Thomas] and that's the beauty of having Brad Stevens as your coach," James said. "You're able to reshape what you do offensively and still be in a good rhythm. It's been challenging for us to kind of -- plays out of timeout, [they've] kind of been killing us on ATOs and keeping us off-balance, but in the second half we kind of got a little bit of rhythm and think we'll be better in Game 5."
The Celtics have repeatedly stressed that Thomas is out for the remainder of the postseason no matter how long this series lasts. Which means that if Boston is to truly make things interesting and prolong its season for at least another few days, it'll need players to step up and show poise on a big stage.
As Irving and James went to another level Tuesday night, the Celtics had no one who could quite match them. To the credit of Boston's players, they refused to use Thomas' absence as an excuse for why the team is on the brink of elimination.
Instead, the Celtics embraced their adversity. They've routinely thrived in tough situations this season. They'd also like to atone to their home crowd for two forgettable performances to start the series.
"We're humble enough to know that we haven't played well at home, and we want to give our home crowd a better outing than we did the past two games," Jae Crowder said. "We're right there where we want to be, we're locked in."
Still, the gap between a locked-in Celtics team and an engaged Cavaliers squad might be too wide to overcome. It's fair to wonder how much different things would be with a healthy Thomas.
While acknowledging that Boston is without its leader, Avery Bradley, who led the team with 19 points, hopes it can rise to the challenge in Thursday's Game 5.
"We owe our fans a better performance, and we know that. And we're going to play hard," he said. "You're going to see a team playing hard, very hard, the entire game."
That alone might not be enough. The Celtics could really use a superstar like Thomas.
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James claimed that some type of adversity would be necessary for the Cleveland Cavaliers to find their ultimate playoff success following an epic meltdown in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Tuesday's Game 4 against the Boston Celtics might have brought more adversity than even James bargained for. For the first time in his 14-year career -- more than 1,200 games played in the regular season and playoffs combined -- James picked up four first-half fouls, which sent him to the bench midway through the second quarter with the Cavs down by double digits.
What followed was Cleveland's turn for a comeback, as the Cavs erased a 16-point hole to win 112-99 and take a 3-1 series lead.
While the basketball world tuned in wondering what James would do to make up for his disappearing act in Game 3, it was Kyrie Irving who stole the show with his most electrifying postseason game since Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Golden State, in which he put up 41 points in a must-win scenario.
"We knew going into halftime that we hadn't played our best basketball, so it was a conscious choice that we had to make on our end: How bad did we want it?" Irving said.
Irving erupted for 21 of his career-playoff-high 42 points in the third quarter, slicing into the lane time and again, and finishing in every way imaginable: left hand, right hand, off glass, with English, in the half court or on the break.
By the time he capped the quarter with a 26-foot, step-back 3-pointer, the Cavs had turned a 10-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead and Irving had delivered one of the finest 12-minute stretches imaginable, hitting nine of 10 shots from the field, pushing through a left-ankle tweak and scoring the Cavs' final 14 points in the period.
"He's a special kid," James said of Irving. "He's a special talent. As the stakes get higher and higher, his game gets higher and higher, but it was nothing surprising for me."
James bounced back with the type of dominant night that typified his production during the Cavs' 10-0 start to the playoffs and more than made up for his 11-point clunker Sunday. He recorded 34 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds. Twenty-four of those points came in the second half, all while he managed those four fouls.
But he didn't make it out of the night without at least one sequence that brought to mind Sunday's bizarre Game 3. James caught a Kevin Love outlet pass in stride with the Cavs down 69-68 midway through the third quarter, and his hammer dunk rimmed in and out, stifling the Cleveland crowd just when it was ready to go crazy celebrating the Cavs' first lead since they were up 5-0.
"I've missed a couple dunks in my career," James said. "I think I've made more than I've missed, though. Percentages are pretty good."
No matter, more reasons to cheer were about to come.
Love continued his strong series with 17 points and 17 rebounds. J.R. Smith, on the day his family brought their daughter, Dakota, home from the hospital for the first time since she was delivered prematurely in January, scored five points on two momentum-boosting plays in a tip dunk and 3-pointer.
It was the Cavs' second double-digit comeback after the half this postseason (they stormed back from 26 down in Indiana in Game 3 of the first round), and they joined the Golden State Warriors with two such second-half surges in these playoffs.
James' fouls were merely part of a disastrous first half for the Cavs, who committed nine turnovers that led to 13 points for the Celtics. They also were outrebounded 19-17.
Cleveland missed 13 of the 19 shots it attempted in the first quarter but finished hitting 38 of its final 55 attempts (69.1 percent). The Cavs' 59.5 percent for the game tied the franchise record for shooting efficiency in the playoffs (they did so against Boston on May 7, 2010).
The Cavs' second-half defense was just as impressive, as they held the Celtics to a measly 42 points after the break. Overall, James and Irving outscored the Celtics 60-50 after Boston took its largest lead of the game with 5:30 left in the first half.
"The importance of a Game 4, especially the way we came out in Game 3, you know, in the back of my mind, I was like, I'm saying to myself, 'We cannot -- they cannot tie up this series,' " Irving said. " 'They cannot. We cannot go to Boston 2-2.' "
James' teams are 11-0 all time in series that they led 3-1. Game 5 is Thursday at TD Garden.
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving took over in the second half and finished with 42 points, LeBron James added 34 and the Cleveland Cavaliers moved within one win of an almost inevitable third date in the Finals with Golden State by rallying to beat the Boston Celtics 112-99 on Tuesday night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Irving stayed on the floor despite rolling his left ankle in the third quarter, when he scored 19 in less than five minutes, and James shook off early foul trouble as the Cavs opened a 3-1 lead in the series.
The defending NBA champions can wrap up their third straight conference title -- and a "three-match" against the Warriors -- with a win in Game 5 on Thursday night in Boston.