LeBron James Erupts for 44 as Cavaliers Cruise Past Celtics to Even Up ECF

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James drives on Boston Celtics' Terry Rozier in the first half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals, Monday, May 21, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The Cleveland Cavaliers are two wins away from their fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Cleveland evened the Eastern Conference Finals at two games apiece Monday with a 111-102 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron James led the way with 44 points, five rebounds and three assists, making up for seven turnovers in the process.

Jaylen Brown (25 points) and Terry Rozier (16 points and 11 assists) spearheaded Boston's attack, but the visitors fell behind by double digits in the first quarter and never overcame the deficit playing in catch-up mode throughout the contest.

        

Boston's Road House of Horrors

The math is simple—Boston isn't going to win a championship if it can't solve its road woes.

The Celtics are now 1-6 away from home in these playoffs following Monday's loss, and the road won't get any easier. With all due respect to Giannis Antetokounmpo's overwhelming talent, a team that was 0-3 on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round doesn't inspire much confidence in a potential NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets.

Boston wouldn't have home-court advantage to fall back on against either Western Conference representative, and that's making the leap that it will continue to play well at home against the Cavaliers.

If the Celtics win Game 5 but their road woes continue in Game 6, they'd have to play James in a do-or-die contest—not exactly a promising scenario.

The cliche is role players struggle away from home, and it is easy to call the majority of Boston's roster "role players" at this point with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sidelined. The visitors missed multiple dunks, including two from Jayson Tatum, and dealt with foul issues with three players committing five.

Those issues have all been cleaned up at home this postseason, but the pressure will be dialed up after another road loss.

           

Cavaliers X-Factors Beginning to Emerge

Not even James can win alone, and the emergence of veteran X-factors has given Cleveland momentum.

After six Cavaliers scored in double figures in Game 3, Kyle Korver (14 points and three blocks), George Hill (13 points) and Tristan Thompson (13 points and 12 rebounds) provided James with critical support in key moments of Monday's victory.

Korver's presence alone stretched Boston's defense and created driving lanes for the four-time MVP, and Thompson's ability to protect the rim on defense and battle for boards covered up defensive mistakes on the perimeter. Hill also took advantage of those driving lanes and converted at the rim to further stress Boston's defense.

The series is now a best-of-three battle, and the only way the Cavaliers will prevail against a team that led the league in defensive rating during the regular season, per NBA.com, is by preventing said defense from honing in on just James.

Not only does Korver's shooting, Thompson's post play and Hill's penetration create points, it allows James to be more engaged on the defensive side when he isn't exerting all his energy carrying the offense on his back for 40-plus minutes.

Boston hasn't lost at home yet in these playoffs, but the emergence of the X-factors alongside a dominant James provides the Cavaliers with the recipe to change that.

        

LeBron's Basketball Genius on Full Display 

The supporting cast allowed James to assess the game in the early going and pick the most ideal spots to crush the Celtics' will.

To Boston's credit, it battled back from the initial deficit and was within single digits multiple times in the second half, but James went into takeover mode when needed, especially when Kevin Love was on the bench with five fouls.

He went to the post, attacked the basket off the bounce and sought out favorable matchups with Rozier and others on defensive switches. He consistently kept Boston at bay, as a fast-break layup pushed the lead back to double digits in the final seven minutes and a steal and basket at the rim did the same in crunch time.

James made some history just for good measure:

Even with home-court advantage in two of the final three games, Celtics fans are all too familiar with James tearing their hearts out at TD Garden (his famous Game 6 performance in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals when he was on the Miami Heat), and he will have the opportunity to smash their 9-0 record at home in a crucial swing game Wednesday.

If he does, pencil the Cavaliers into the Finals yet again.

             

What's Next?

The series shifts back to Boston for Wednesday's Game 5, where one team will seize control and move a single victory away from the NBA Finals. The Celtics can still win this series if they take care of business at home, but their margin for error is smaller after Monday's performance.

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