CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers are on the brink of earning their third straight Eastern Conference Championship, and a win over the Boston Celtics in Game 5 at TD Garden tonight would ensure a rubber match with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals after each team beat the other for the title over the last two years.
But before the Cavaliers can focus on defending their NBA Championship against the Warriors, they must finish off the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and here are five things they will need to accomplish that goal.
GET LEADERSHIP FROM LEADERS
The NBA Playoffs are a proving ground for players, a time to see whether their talents match up with the ability to handle the pressure of increased physicality, a higher level of intensity and meaningful moments at every point of the game.
From hitting the championship-winning shot against the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals to stepping up at a time when small forward LeBron James was struggling through foul trouble, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving has never shined away from that kind of stage.
In Tuesday’s 112-99 Game 4 win Irving led a comeback from 16 points down and set a new single-game playoff best along the way with 42 points. At one point in the third quarter, the Cavaliers got 14 straight points from Irving and turned a deficit into a seven-point advantage heading into the fourth.
A veteran of more than 200 NBA playoff games, James knows very well when it is time to step up his level of production, and the fourth quarter of Game 4 against the Celtics certainly proved to be one of those moments.
After scoring 19 points over the first three quarters, James knocked down seven shots and tallied 15 markers over the final 12 minutes, which, when coupled with a single-game playoff high of 42 from Irving, led to the win and a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
After a season-low 11 points in Sunday’s Game 3 loss and despite making just one of his six three-point attempts, James scored 34 points on 15-of-27 shooting. Additionally, James pulled down five rebounds, handed out six assists, blocked one shot and stole a pass.
TAKING CARE OF THE BALL
For four straight quarters in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers were plagued by turnovers, and that led to a second-half collapse against the Celtics in Game 3 and a sluggish start to Game 4.
However, the Cavaliers limited the turnovers in the second half of Game 4, and by taking better care of the basketball, they were able to rally from 16 points down to pull out the victory.
After nine first-half turnovers led to 13 points for the Celtics, who had just three turnovers over the first 24 minutes, the Cavaliers committed just six miscues in the third and fourth quarters. Conversely, they forced nine Celtics turnovers and converted them into 13 points.
As has been the case when the Cavaliers have played their best basketball, they used their defense to generate offense in the come-from-behind victory at Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday.
While limiting the Celtics to 42 points over the third and fourth quarters, the Cavaliers outscored them in the paint, 36-10, in second-chance opportunities, 8-6, and in fast-break situations, 10-2.
“In order to be successful, you have to defend,” James said. “You have to defend. And especially versus a team like this who moves the ball, shares the ball, moves bodies, and they're very precise with their offensive sets. You have to defend, and it allows us to get to our best attribute at times, and that's to get out on the open floor. I think that allowed us to outscore them by 17 in the third.”
In addition to limiting their turnovers, the Cavaliers proved adept at getting extra possessions in their Game 4 win.
Power forward Kevin Love pulled down 10 of his 17 rebounds in the second half, including two on the offensive end of the floor when center Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers’ most tenacious rebounder, drew double and triple box outs from the Celtics.
As a team, the Cavaliers outrebounded the Celtics, 37-29, and forced 12 turnovers, which resulted in 15 points.
“When you look at some of the greatest rebounders in our game, guys who create extra possessions, you've got to figure out a way to try to take him out, and not take him out like in a bad way, but how do you keep him off the glass, and they're doing a really good job the last couple games of putting two or three bodies on him,” James said.
“When you do that, you allow our other front-court player, who's been a monster rebounder his whole career, to come up and do the thing that he did, and we needed that. We needed the 17 rebounds from Kev, and it was huge for our team.”