BOSTON – The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals
Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA Finals.
Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said all you can do against James is “make it as hard as you can.”
“LeBron is the best player of this generation and he’s just maintained that because of his commitment to improvement,” Stevens said. “He’s always been an unbelievable physical player. He’s always been a savvy player. And he’s always had, just like the natural instincts to make the right basketball play along with his tremendous skill set.”
While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated behind the play of James, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.
“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”
Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.
They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.
Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.
Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.
Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.
Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.
Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.
Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland , he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.
If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.
“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”
Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.
Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.
Korver’s efforts have stood out.
At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.
“There’s not many of us ‘03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Independence, Ohio contributed to this report.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.