CLEVELAND – The Cavaliers had given their best performance so far in the Eastern Conference finals and, in Saturday's Game 3, finally had broken through to win. That’s when LeBron James and Kevin Love, handling their postgame interview duties in tandem, were asked to explain all the extra passes, the defenders flying around, and the energy and effort that was so apparent, compared to the first two games.
Why, in other words, was such hustle and winning plays at the ready some nights and so conspicuously absent on others?
“I don’t know,” James said, his face in shadow from the bill of his cap.
“I don’t know, either,” Love said, a beat or two later.
Kyle Korver took more of a crack at it after Cleveland repeated the performance Monday, fending off the Boston Celtics in Game 4 to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece. This time it was closer, a 111-102 Cavaliers victory rather than the 30-point blowout two nights earlier.
But that only accentuated the intangibles, the grimy work the Cavs did better than the Celtics possession after possession. Cleveland could point afterward to various miscues and breakdowns that prevented it from building the lead Monday to the breezy levels of Game 3. Then again, the Cavaliers managed their advantage adeptly, fending off a Boston team that reclaimed some of its feistiness in the second half.
No matter what sort of run the Celtics made in the third and fourth quarters, the Cavs kept them three possessions behind. That’s as close as Boston got, and no closer.
Not that Korver was any better at explaining why this time and why not those other times.
“I’m not going to give you a great answer either, because you’re supposed to do it all the time,” the veteran shooter said. “You want to have that mentality all the time.
“Sometimes you don’t always get opportunities like that in a game. I had a loose ball in the first half that I didn’t dive on, and I was mad at myself afterwards. I was in the mindset tonight of doing that, but I didn’t do it on that one.”
There’d be no second regret. If there was one play that typified Cleveland’s success in shortening the East finals now to best-of-three, resuming on the Celtics’ floor at TD Garden Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), it was Korver diving headlong after a loose ball near the end of the third quarter.
Cleveland point guard George Hill tied up Boston big man Aron Baynes for a jump ball mismatch, so James and Korver flashed some quick communication that they intended to steal Baynes’ inevitable tap.
“They were tipping it back and 'Bron saw me going,” Korver explained. “I was going, but I wasn’t going that far. And he hit it all the way (downcourt). So I just took off after it. And I felt Terry (Rozier) run right past me. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to dive after this thing.’”
Korver did dive, and had a bead on the ball. Rozier was at a disadvantage, trying to locate it on the fly, and the result when the ball squirted out of bounds proved it: Cavaliers basketball.
“I felt so incredibly old and slow when I dove after that ball,” Korver said. “But the heart was in the right spot.”
At 37, Korver had the sort of gritty game that propels good teams through the postseason. He scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting in his 25 minutes, winding up as the game’s most prolific bench scorer.
But the 6-foot-7 marksman, usually offered faint praise as a “solid team defender,” also blocked three shots, getting his hands on the ball to disrupt Boston possessions and generally tormented Jaylen Brown when they were matched up. Brown shot 4-of-14 for just 10 points through the first three quarters.
“He's guarding -- how old is Jaylen Brown?” James asked. “Twenty-one? He’s guarding Jaylen Brown, one of the most athletic wings we have in our league. Jaylen can fall on the ground 10 times and probably spring up and just as likely never feel it. I don't remember Kyle falling too much like that.
“But listen, he's doing whatever it takes to try to help us win, with the blocks, with the strips. Obviously his shot-making is very key for our team as well, but it's just the intangibles he's doing for us defensively that has put him in a position to be on the floor.”
Said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue after being reminded that Korver – drafted in the same 2003 Draft as James, only 50 picks later after four years at Creighton – has been 37 since St. Patrick’s Day: “God dang. We're playing him too many minutes.”
There were multiple Cavaliers flying around defensively, to use their vernacular, and chipping in small moments and prized intangibles. They needed them all, too, on a night when they weren’t all that sharp handling the ball (19 turnovers worth 19 points to Boston) or shooting it from distance (8-for-23, compared to 17-of-34 in Game 3).
So they needed the work of center Tristan Thompson, who has made Boston’s Al Horford battle for everything since Lue flipped Thompson into the starting lineup in Game 2. Thompson scored 13 points with 12 rebounds and a pair of blocks.
Then there was Larry Nance Jr., bouncy and pesky, scoring seven points in 10-plus minutes with a pair of blocks and a couple of offensive rebounds.
James had the night’s gaudiest number, scoring 44 points in 42 minutes. But even then, it was James’ repeated exploitation of Rozier as a switched and generally overmatched defender, along with finishes at the rim and “hockey assists” to initiate plays that kept Cleveland in front.
Now all the Cavaliers need to do is replicate the performance in Boston. The series could be decided entirely according to home court, but both the Celtics and the Cavaliers are frantic to win at least one on their opponents' floor. The former could make their task a little easier by doing so, the latter can’t advance if they don’t snag either Game 5 or Game 7.
“Have the same approach going into Boston,” Lue described his message to the players. “I think playing with more speed and more pace, pushing the basketball. I think taking care of the basketball is the most important, especially on the road. You don't want to turn the ball over when you get to Boston because they really thrive off that -- dunks, 3s, layups.”
Nothing can match the satisfaction a sniper like Korver feels when he nails several soul-crushing, quick-release 3-pointers against scrambling defenders. But beating the other guy to a floor burn has its rewards, too.
“It’s hard to get here,” Korver said of the conference championship series, one step shy of The Finals. “Just because LeBron’s been here so many years in a row, sometimes some people can take it for granted and just expect it to happen. It’s hard to get this far in the playoffs. It’s hard to win a playoff series.
“You’ve got to have the opportunity and you’ve just got to be ready for it. Maybe some guys don’t like doing those plays. But in the playoffs, you should be going after all of them.”
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