LeBron James knows the path to the NBA Finals better than anyone in today’s game.
And unless the Boston Celtics do something soon, he could get there again.
James bullied his way to 44 points, surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar atop a postseason list and helped the Cleveland Cavaliers even the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2 on Monday night with a 111-102 victory over the Celtics, who are looking forward to getting home before their adoring fans.
Pushed by a raucous crowd that wasn’t so confident a few days ago, the Cavaliers held off Boston’s comeback in the fourth quarter and squared a tight series that is now a best-of-three.
Cleveland is trying to become the 20th team — out of 300 — to overcome a 2-0 deficit and James, who has already orchestrated two such rallies and is seeking his eighth straight Finals, is a step closer to a third.
But to do it again the Cavaliers will have to win in Boston, where the Celtics are 9-0 this postseason.
“It’s a hostile environment,” James said. “We understand that, we know that there’s no love in there. If you ain’t got on green, if you don’t play for that team, if you don’t bleed green, they got no love for you. So we’ve got to come out with a bunker mentality and understand it’s just us.
Game 5 is Wednesday night at TD Garden, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked what message he would give his team.
“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals. Doesn’t get better than that,” he said. “Ultimately, anybody that didn’t think this was going to be tough, I mean, everything is tough. In this deal, it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again.”
Kyle Korver added 14 points and the 37-year-old added several hustle plays, outrunning three Celtics and diving for a loose ball. Tristan Thompson had 13 points and 12 rebounds for Cleveland. Kevin Love had just nine points on three-for-12 shooting and was in foul trouble, but he made a big three-pointer and follow shot in the fourth quarter.
Jaylen Brown scored 25 and Boston had all five scorers in double figures, but the Celtics fell behind by 19 in the first half and didn’t have enough to catch Cleveland.
And, of course, they didn’t have James, who moved past Abdul-Jabbar (2,356) for the most field goals in playoff history. James also recorded his 25th career postseason game with at least 40 points.
The Celtics hung around in the second half and pulled within 100-93 on Marcus Smart’s basket with 4:29 left. But Thompson got free for a dunk, and after a miss by Boston, James recovered after making his seventh turnover by making a steal and layup.
Moments later, James drilled a three-pointer from the left wing to finally put away the young Celtics, who will now feel the immense pressure of trying to hold off the three-time champion.
Stevens considered changing his starting lineup, but decided to stick with the same first five — Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Al Horford and Terry Rozier — as the first three games.
Boston got some open looks in the first quarter, but the Celtics shot just 27% (both Tatum and Brown missed dunks). The Celtics seemed tentative as the Cavaliers pushed their halftime lead to 15.