CLEVELAND — Missed dunks and missed opportunities — that was the story of Game 4 for a Boston Celtics team that squandered a chance to put the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ backs against the wall in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics dug themselves an early first-quarter hole highlighted by three missed dunk attempts on a night when Boston missed a staggering 15 dunks and layups overall. Despite numerous second-half surges, the Celtics never truly got over the hump, as the Cavaliers fended them off en route to a 111-102 triumph at Quicken Loans Arena.
“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals. Doesn’t get better than that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens 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. That’s part of it.”
The series is tied at two. Game 5 is Wednesday in Boston.
The Celtics won’t find watching film of Monday’s loss very therapeutic. There were head-slapping miscues in the first half and numerous missed chances to pull close in the fourth quarter. What’s more, the Cavaliers generated 15 total points directly off the 15 missed dunks and layups that Boston had in Game 4.
“Very frustrating. But that’s life,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said. “You keep moving.”
Boston was a combined 1-of-6 shooting with three turnovers any time it cut Cleveland’s lead to single digits in the second half of Game 4, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. The Celtics never pulled closer than seven.
The Celtics were making their most spirited charge of the night early in the fourth frame when Al Horford raced off a pindown screen from Marcus Smart and got a wide-open look from beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing. It’s a shot that has been automatic for Horford for most of the postseason, and he held his follow-through high as it left his hand, only for the shot to clang hard off the back rim.
The Celtics, down 13 entering the final frame, pulled within eight with a little burst that culminated with Horford losing two defenders on the baseline before a dunk that cut Cleveland’s lead to 96-88.
But Horford’s missed 3-pointer was the first of five chances the Celtics squandered over a 98-second span before Cleveland scored again. Boston missed three shots and committed a turnover before big man Aron Baynes drew a foul following an offensive rebound. Even then, Baynes missed one of the two free throws, and Boston never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
“I think we had to tighten up a little bit more, and we didn’t do that. We let it slip away a couple times when we had [the deficit] at 8,” Terry Rozier said. “And that’s something that we have to get better at, especially being on the road. We’ve gotta take good shots, better shots.”
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It was a maddening night for the Celtics, who had a sequence in the first quarter when they missed three dunks. Both Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum missed attempts at loud jams, and Horford missed one as well (though he was saved by a foul call).
“Just going too fast, too excited. Just needed to slow down,” Brown said. “We missed a bunch of easy opportunities. We made some bad turnovers and things like that. But we still had opportunities to get into this game and to win. We just have to do just a little more on the road and take some better shots, and we’ll be fine.”
Boston was further hindered by foul trouble, with Marcus Morris forced to be a little cautious after picking up three early fouls. Morris was particularly irked when he was whistled for kicking his leg out on a made 3-pointer that led to one of the more pronounced scoring swings of the game.
“[Foul trouble was] tough, man. I don’t really want to speak on that and get a fine,” Morris said. “At the end of the day, I work hard, work my ass off to defend this position. The ticky-tack fouls — it is what it is.”
Asked about the difficulty in defending with foul trouble, Morris added, “It’s tough. You’re already playing against the best player in the league, and you can be a little bit physical. It’s tough to guard him. You can’t do anything, and it’s fouls, fouls. We almost had to give up baskets.”
The Celtics can find positives in the loss, as they were far more competitive than in Saturday’s Game 3 shellacking. But it will be hard not to feel like they missed a chance to put a stranglehold on the series, and now they must go back to Boston for what amounts to the start of a best-of-three series.
“We talked about it in the locker room: best of three to go to the NBA Finals. It’s pretty exciting,” Tatum said.