CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James knows the path to the NBA Finals better than anyone in today’s game.
And unless the Boston Celtics do something soon, he could get there again.
James bullied his way to 44 points, surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar atop a postseason list and helped the Cleveland Cavaliers even the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2 on Monday night with a 111-102 victory over the Celtics, who are looking forward to getting home before their adoring fans.
Pushed by a raucous crowd that wasn’t so confident a few days ago, the Cavs held off Boston’s comeback in the fourth quarter and squared a tight series that is now a best-of-three.
Cleveland is trying to become the 20th team — out of 300 — to overcome a 2-0 deficit and James, who has already orchestrated two such rallies and is seeking his eighth straight Finals, is a step closer to a third.
But to do it again the Cavs will have to win in Boston, where the Celtics are 9-0 this postseason.
“It’s a hostile environment,” James said. “We understand that, we know that there’s no love in there. If you ain’t got on green, if you don’t play for that team, if you don’t bleed green, they got no love for you. So we’ve got to come out with a bunker mentality and understand it’s just us it’s going to be a great atmosphere.
Game 5 is Wednesday night at TD Center, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked what message he would give his team.
“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals. Doesn’t get better than that,” he said. “Ultimately, anybody that didn’t think this was going to be tough, I mean, everything is tough. In this deal, it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again.”
Kyle Korver added 14 points and the 37-year-old added several hustle plays, outrunning three Celtics and diving for a loose ball. Tristan Thompson had 13 points and 12 rebounds for Cleveland. Kevin Love had just nine points on 3-of-12 shooting and was in foul trouble, but he made a big 3-pointer and follow shot in the fourth quarter.
Jaylen Brown scored 25 and Boston had all five scorers in double figures, but the Celtics fell behind by 19 in the first half and didn’t have enough to catch Cleveland.
And, of course, they didn’t have James, who moved past Abdul-Jabbar (2,356) for the most field goals in playoff history. James also recorded his 25th career postseason game with at least 40 points — his sixth in this postseason.
The Celtics hung around in the second half and pulled within 100-93 on Marcus Smart’s basket with 4:29 left. But Thompson got free for a dunk, and after a miss by Boston, James recovered after making his seventh turnover by making a steal and layup.
Moments later, James drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing to finally put away the young Celtics, who will now feel the immense pressure of trying to hold off the three-time champion.
Stevens considered changing his starting lineup, but decided to stick with the same first five — Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Al Horford, and Terry Rozier — as the first three games.
Boston’s starters held their own, but none of them was able to match James when it mattered most.
The Celtics couldn’t afford another slow start and that’s exactly what happened.
Boston got some open looks in the first quarter, but the Celtics shot just 27 percent (7 of 26) and both Tatum and Brown missed dunks. Also, Morris picked up three fouls and his teammates all seemed tentative as the Cavs pushed their lead to 15 at halftime.
Celtics: Stevens was deliberately evasive about his starting lineup during his pregame news conference, not wanting to give the Cavs any advance notice. “We will start five people. I promise,” he said, drawing laughs from media members. … Injured stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are not traveling with the team so they can continue their respective rehabs. Both have been sitting on the bench with their teammates in Boston.
Cavaliers: Won their seventh straight playoff game at home. … James also recorded his 106th 30-point game in the postseason. Only Michael Jordan (109) has more. … Love threw one of his patented “touchdown” passes in the first quarter to James, who outmaneuvered Smart and Brown like a wide receiver to make the catch and score. … Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in last month’s NFL draft, attended the game. Improved to 9-3 vs. Boston in the playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena.
Like most fans, Lue has been stunned — but not necessarily disappointed — by the number of lopsided wins in the playoffs, especially in the semifinals.
The first six games between Boston-Cleveland and Houston-Golden State were decided by an average of 24 points. The Warriors won Game 3 on Sunday night by 41, the largest margin of victory in franchise history.
“It does surprise me,” he said. “All four teams are really good. But the home court has shown it’s been a factor.”
Game 5 is Wednesday in Boston.