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, sending 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, erasing 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, when he put up 41 points in a must-win scenario.
Irving erupted for 21 of his career-playoff-high 42 points in the third quarter, slicing into the lane time and time again, 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 stepback 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 9 of 10 shots from the field, pushing through a left ankle tweak and scoring the Cavs’ final 14 points in the period.
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 on Sunday with 34 points, six assists and five rebounds — 24 of those points coming in the second half all while managing those four fouls.
He didn’t make it out of the night without at least one sequence that brought to mind Sunday’s bizarre Game 3, however. 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 it was 5-0.
No matter, there was more to cheer 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 at the half this postseason (they stormed back from 26 down in Indiana in Game 3 of the first round), joining 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 as they committed nine turnovers, leading to 13 points for the Celtics and were controlled on the glass 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’ second-half defense was just as impressive, holding 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.
James’ teams are 11-0 all time in series when leading 3-1. Game 4 is Thursday in Boston.