CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue walked to the podium for his six-minute postgame session and let out a huge sigh of relief while gazing at the stat sheet in front of him.
Lue had seen his Cavaliers let a late fourth quarter lead slip away against the Boston Celtics last year. And while the Cavs came close to watching it happen again, as a 20-point lead shrunk to one on three separate occasions in the final few minutes, they were able to hang on for the 124-118 win.
Here are five observations:
No white flag – Up by 18 at the start of the fourth, Lue summoned his usual group of Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.
It’s clear he wanted to put Boston away quickly and then pull his mainstays. But it didn’t quite go according to plan.
“They put their third unit in the game and I think he threw in the white flag as they’ve got a game tomorrow and we wanted to come in and put Kyrie and Bron to start the fourth quarter to put the game out,” Lue admitted. “They came in, played hard and scrapped. They were able to come back and change the game.”
Boston opened the fourth quarter on a 19-7 run, exploiting Irving and Frye’s deficiencies in the pick-and-roll.
That’s one of the dangers of Lue’s five-man group. With Frye in the game instead of Tristan Thompson, Irving’s troubles defending the pick-and-roll get highlighted.
The Celtics used the set four straight possessions, getting nine points before Lue had to bring back a few starters. The Cavs also lost track of floor-spacing Jonas Jerebko a few times. He scored seven points in the first six minutes.
“Marcus (Smart) and (Tyler) Zeller and Jerebko, those guys came in, Jaylen (Brown) as well, they came in and gave them a big spark and they basically just took the energy away from us,” James said.
The Cavs were outscored, 35-23, in the fourth. But made enough plays late.
Coming through – Following the game, James was clearly dissatisfied with his play, giving himself an “F.”
“That guy is so special. He gives himself an F and he still ends up with 23 (points), 8 (rebounds) and 11 (assists),” Irving said. “That’s what makes the greats great right there, just taking accountability and then moving forward. Said what he had to say in front of the team and then we move on. That’s what being a great team is really about, just having great players step up to the plate.”
That’s what James did. He overcame an eight-turnover night and made a few critical plays down the stretch.
As soon as Boston cut the lead to one, James’ driving layup pushed the Cavs back in front by three. A few possessions later, he earned a trip to the free throw line after bullying his way inside against Smart.
With 8.5 seconds left and the Cavs holding a four-point edge, they needed another stop, as the Celtics still had one timeout remaining and the Cavs’ best free throw shooter was on the bench with a hamstring cramp. A bucket by the Celtics would have cut the lead to two points and they would have fouled immediately and then who knows.
But it didn’t get to that point because James swiped the ball from Boston’s Al Horford, sealing the victory with a pair of Love freebies.
“Once the ball went into Horford I figured it was probably going to be some hammer action on the backside or some guys going from flare to flaring,” James said of Boston’s after-timeout play. “I know Horford’s tendencies from playing against him a lot and I just tried to make the clean strip and I was able to do that.”
Making somebody else beat them – With 21.3 seconds left, after James had just split a pair at the line, the Cavs were clinging to a two-point lead.
Isaiah Thomas, who finished with 31 points, received a handoff and screen from Jae Crowder before angling to the left wing. With two defenders closing in, he snapped a pass to Crowder on the right wing for an open 3-pointer that bounced off the back rim and into the arms of Richard Jefferson.
It was a great look for Crowder, who is a 40.8 percent 3-point shooter and had made a triple a few minutes earlier. Still, Tte goal was to keep Avery Bradley or Thomas from making the winning shot. After all, Bradley buried a dagger against the Cavs last season.
“Last possession of the game we said we wanted to double team and trap it and we can get back to him and then live with the results. He missed the shot,” Lue said. “We know Isaiah can score the basketball and he can come off and you can make a mistake so we made somebody else beat us. Fortunately for us Crowder missed a shot.”
And that’s the problem the Celtics will continue to have against the Cavs — unless free agent prize Horford provides more than six points, four assists and one rebound in 29 minutes.
If it becomes all about Thomas and Bradley, the Cavs will use bigger defenders (DeAndre Liggins, Iman Shumpert and James) against that duo and force someone else to step up and make plays.
Can anyone else do it consistently?
Irving joins elite company – Early on, Irving was in distribution mode, tallying five assists in the first quarter.
“Just realizing the amount of attention I’m commanding when I get in the paint,” he said. “Just seeing opportunities for my teammates, my drives in the lanes, realizing I could almost get my shot off or shot any time I come down, so now it’s about playing that in-between game and getting everyone else involved and make sure everyone is involved in the offense. It’s a different team game when everyone feels good about getting the ball.”
Irving finished with a team-high 12 assists. It’s the fifth time Irving has reached double-digit helpers in the last seven games. It’s the fourth time in the last five games. He did that once all of last season.
Even more impressive, the Celtics boast one of the elite defenders, Bradley, who has stymied numerous top-level lead guards this season.
Prior to Thursday, only six point guards (John Wall, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Tyler Ennis, Russell Westbrook and Goran Dragic) tallied 10 assists or more against Boston in the last two years.
Irving…yes, Irving, becomes the seventh.
Filling in for J.R. Smith – He goes by R.J. so if you flip around Jefferson’s initials you get J.R. That’s just a coincidence. But Jefferson’s rise coinciding with Smith’s absence is not.
When Smith went down for 12-14 weeks, Lue said a committee would have to fill in. He also singled out a few different players, including Jefferson.
The 36-year-old veteran has heeded the message. In the five games since Smith’s injury, Jefferson is averaging 7.2 points in 22.1 minutes.
He hasn’t been nearly the 3-point threat Smith is, shooting 15.4 from long range during the stretch, but continues to come up with crucial plays.
“R.J. has been great for us and he’s finally gotten in better shape than he was earlier in the season,” Lue said.
On Thursday, Jefferson scored 11 points on 2-of-2 from the field, including 7-of-9 from the charity stripe. He also added three rebounds, including an important one in traffic following Crowder’s missed three.
Editor’s note: this post was updated to correct the expected length of J.R. Smith’s absence.