For a good while, it was looking like the Eastern Conference finals were going to be headed back to Boston with the series tied 2-2. Instead, the Cleveland Cavaliers woke up in a flash behind Kyrie Irving's heroics, erasing a 16-point Boston lead and eventually cruising home to a 112-99 win in Game 4 to take a 3-1 series lead.
Here are the main takeaways:
Kyrie to the rescue
As mentioned, this was not looking good for Cleveland. Boston built a big lead and had all the momentum early. LeBron James picked up his fourth foul midway through the second quarter. Cleveland trailed by 10 at the half. Then Kyrie Irving, in the nick of time, went nuclear,with a dazzling display of one-on-one basketball. Nobody could check him off the dribble. He finished with both hands at the rim. He hit a 28-footer to close the third. He was completely unstoppable, and he did it all on a turned ankle that looked pretty bad at first glance.
We'll see in the coming days, once the adrenaline wears off, if it was, in fact, an injury of concern, but for this night, when the Cavs needed him most, Irving was the best player on the floor. LeBron did his thing in the fourth quarter once he no longer had to worry about foul trouble and was able to be aggressive, but there's no way that closing stretch matters without Kyrie. This game could've been over a couple different times for Boston. Kyrie never let it happen, finishing with 42 points, a playoff career high.
I'll tell you who owes Kyrie the biggest thank you: Tyronn Lue. Leaving LeBron in with three fouls at that juncture of the second quarter was not a smart move. Yes, Boston had momentum and there was a feeling that the game was starting to get away, but it was just so early. It was kind of a panic move that really could have backfired if not for Kyrie. All's well that ends well, right?
Celtics better, and worse, without Isaiah
We all saw what Boston did in Game 3 without Isaiah Thomas. We saw it again through two quarters of Game 4. Without Thomas controlling possessions, the ball was really moving. Boston was getting great mileage out of Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, who were valuing every single possession. They were getting the ball to the high post, letting Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk get downhill and find shooters in the corner on the collapse, a la Draymond Green in Golden State. Defensively, they didn't have to cover for Thomas, and they were swarming Cleveland. Controlling the glass.
And then Cleveland came back. The Celtics' rhythm was gone offensively. Suddenly they desperately needed someone, anyone, to create some offense. And nobody could do it. All year long, this has been Isaiah's MVP case. At times, he is the only reliable offensive option on this Boston team. Defensive liabilities notwithstanding, there are times they simply can't score enough without him. The second half of Game 4, particularly the fourth quarter, was one of those times. Say what you want about Thomas's ball-dominant style, but he can get his shot against just about anyone pretty much whenever he wants (though Cleveland did shut him down in Games 1 and 2; then again, he was clearly hurt).
You could argue that Boston built a big lead in this game because Thomas wasn't on the floor. You could also argue they couldn't hold onto that lead because Thomas wasn't on the floor. This summer is going to be interesting in Boston, to say the least.
Can we give Kevin some Love?
The target of so much criticism during his time in Cleveland, Kevin Love, the same man who stopped Stephen Curry on the biggest defensive possession in Cavaliers history, is playing absolutely lights-out basketball right now. In Game 4 he finished with 17 points and career-playoff-high 17 rebounds. Through these playoffs he has looked more and more like the guy who was arguably a top-five NBA player during his Minnesota days. No longer is he merely a floor-spacer standing in the corner dragging the occasional 3-pointer. He's once again a go-to post player, a beast on the boards, a knock-down 3-point shooter, a guy once again worthy of double-teams.
And this is big moving forward. When the Cavs inevitably meet up with the Warriors in the finals, Kevin Love playing like this is going to keep Draymond Green seriously occupied rather than letting him run all over helping. Love hasn't been this engaged since he arrived in Cleveland, and it couldn't be coming at a better time.