CLEVELAND — By LeBron James’ definition, the Eastern Conference finals still haven’t started.
Behind 44 points from their superstar, the Cavaliers evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece with a 111-102 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 Monday at The Q.
With the home team having won all four games — James says a series doesn’t start until the road team triumphs — the teams will meet in Game 5 Wednesday at Boston’s TD Garden, where the Celtics are 9-0 this playoffs.
“There’s no love in there,” James said. “If you ain’t got on green, if you don’t bleed green, there’s no love for you.”
James, who passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most field goals made in playoff history, finished 17-for-28 from the field while adding five rebounds, three assists and seven turnovers. He now has six 40-point games in the 2018 playoffs, tying Allen Iverson for the most since 2001.
“It’s not about me,” James said. “It’s about the collective group.”
That group was pretty good for the second straight time at The Q. An energetic and inspired Tristan Thompson also came up big for the Cavs with 13 points, 12 boards and two blocks, while Kyle Korver had all 14 of his points in the first half and finished with three blocks. George Hill added 13 points and Kevin Love had nine points and 11 boards.
“The message,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said, “is have the same approach going into Boston.”
Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 25 points, while Terry Rozier had 16 points, six rebounds and 11 assists, and Al Horford had 15 points and seven boards. Jayson Tatum added 17 points.
“It’s the best two out of three to get to the NBA Finals,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, whose team fell to 1-6 on the road in the this year’s playoffs but will have two of the next three games, if necessary, at home. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
James, who had 35 points after three periods, sat the first 3:32 of the fourth and Boston, which trailed by 19 in the second quarter, trimmed a 13-point deficit to eight.
Lue had a golden opportunity to put James back in with Boston shooting a free throw at the 9:01 mark, but did not and was forced to call timeout after the Celtics scored again on their next possession to make the score 96-88.
Boston, which had a number of chances to get closer, made it 96-89 on an Aron Baynes free throw at 6:55, but a Love tip-in and James drive quickly put the Cavs back up 11.
“He’s the best in the game at evaluating the court and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it,” Stevens said of James. “The thing about that is you just have to battle. You just have to make it as hard as possible.”
The Celtics did, again cutting their deficit to seven, but this time the Cavs pushed it back to 13 on a Hill floater with 2:37 left, essentially ending the game.
“We’re going to learn from this game and go back home and protect our home court,” Boston’s Horford said. “Our focus is just on the next game.”
The Cavs led by 15 at halftime, but the third quarter didn’t start well for them.
James banged his knee early, Love hurt his elbow when Marcus Morris stuck out his leg and tripped him while hitting a 3-pointer — it was negated because Morris was called for an offensive foul — and the Celtics made it a 70-60 game with 8:50 left in the period.
Morris picked up his fifth foul with 6:43 left in the quarter, but that didn’t prevent resilient Boston from making it an 80-72 game on a Tatum drive at the 3:41 mark.
The Celtics were still down just 82-74 when Larry Nance Jr. scored five straight points to put Cleveland up 13, then James scored on a drive to make it 89-74 and all of Boston’s hard work was quickly undone, though a Tatum dunk made it an 89-76 game after three.
“The very end of the third quarter was not good,” Stevens said.
Up 19 after the first possession of the second period, the Cavs saw their lead get cut to nine with 3:37 left in the half before regrouping to go up 68-53 at intermission.
Cleveland’s defense sprung a few leaks and the Celtics hit six 3-pointers en route to a 35-point second quarter, but the Cavs put up 34 points of their own, with Korver accounting for 12 of them.
At that point, Korver had scored 28 points on 9-for-9 shooting, 6-for-6 3-pointers and 4-for-4 free throws over his last six quarters at The Q. He cooled after that, going 0-for-3 from the field in the second half, but made a great hustle play by sprinting the length of the court in the fourth quarter to give the Cavs possession of the ball.
“Kyle is just a pro’s pro,” Lue said. “He does everything right, every night.”
James was sensational the entire half, scoring 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting, and Thompson was extremely active in putting up 10 points and eight rebounds over the opening two quarters.
The Cavs were shooting .615 from the field (24-for-39) at that point and had made 6 of 11 3-pointers — they were 2-for-17 in the second half. But eight turnovers cost them 10 points — they finished with 19 that cost them 19 points — keeping the game from being a blowout.
After taking a 15-point lead after the first period of Game 3, the Cavs went up 16(34-18) after one in Game 4 behind 11 points from James.
The Celtics, who trailed throughout in Game 3, actually had a few early leads this time around, but a 10-0 run put Cleveland up 19-10 midway through the quarter.
The Cavs, who outscored the Celtics by seven points with James sitting the final 2:23, made it 30-17 on a Hill 3-pointer, 32-18 on a Korver jumper and 34-18 on a Jeff Green drive.
“It’s not a series until you win a game on the road, right?” Thompson said. “They’ve been really good at home.
“If things aren’t going good for us, we can’t go apart. We’ve got to stay together and fight through it.”
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