Heading into Tuesday morning's Game 4 at the Quicken Loans Arena, the Boston Celtics knew they had to rectify their problematic road woes. A 30-point blow out in Game 3 had given LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers the life they so desperately needed in their quest to reach a fourth straight NBA Finals. Head coach Brad Stevens has been widely praised as a coaching messiah through these playoffs, his constant lineup changes flashing not only the faith he has in his entire squad, but his ability to read the trends of a seven-game series and provide the requisite adjustments.
Despite the Game 3 hiccup, Stevens stuck with the same starting five, hoping for an improved effort out the gate. This of course meant Aron Baynes would again come off the bench, a position he has been resigned to this series as the Celtics stick with Marcus Morris as their preferred LeBron matchup. With 7:54 remaining in the first quarter, a Terry Rozier jump shot gave the Celtics a 10-9 lead. Unfortunately for Boston, that may have been their peak moment in the contest as the Cavaliers ripped off a scintillating 25-8 run to enter the first change with a 16 point advantage.
It's interesting to note that Cleveland center Tristan Thompson tallied four points and five rebounds in an influential opening 12 minutes, of which Baynes only played 54 seconds.
He was able to make an impact with this thunderous putback, giving the Celtics a standout highlight in their disastrous first quarter.
The early onslaught had once again created major separation between the two squads, the lead ballooned out to 19 points at one stage in the second quarter, before settling at 15 at halftime.
Frustratingly for the Celtics, their offense found their groove, racking up 35 points in the second period, only to see the deficit cut by only one point. A 22-point first half for James paced the Cavs, but in a repeat of Game 3, he had able support, as Kyle Korver (14), Thompson (10) and J.R Smith (9), helped to keep the Boston resurgence at bay.
Baynes collected seven points and two offensive boards at the half, but it was once again Thompson that was providing a major boost on the other end, as he reeled in eight boards to go with his double-digit scoring. The balance of the Celtics rotation had become thrown off by the suddenly influential big man, as his timely resurgence has provided a major boost in a somewhat similar way to Thon Maker with the Bucks, as they faced a 0-2 deficit against these Celtics.
The second half eventuated into a battle of wills, as Boston tenaciously attempted to sneak back into the contest but were held off by the equally determined Cavaliers outfit. By the fourth quarter the margin had been reduced to single digits, and after a 2 minute and 4 second period where only three points were scored, it was Baynes who provided one of the more humorous moments of the playoffs.
The clip is pure brilliance. With a loose ball ricocheting from hand to hand, it somehow ended up in the somehow wide-open mitts of Baynes. In a moment of confusion, likely unaware of how open he was, Al Horford began frantically pointing towards their basket like a parent at a junior game whose child is heading in the wrong direction. Baynes finally become aware of his freedom and attacked the basket. He was fouled as a result and made one free throw to cut the margin to seven.
Do yourself a favor and ensure you watch the Celtics bench reactions during this amazing few seconds of play, it gets better each time you do.
Resisting the Celtics' charge, the Cavaliers held on over the final minutes, to even the series and keep the Eastern Conference Finals on home court. Not getting too caught up in the emotion of the loss, the always philosophical Brad Stevens chose to look ahead, rather than back when assessing the balance of the contest.
"It's the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals. Doesn't get better than that," Stevens said. "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."
In order to do so and swing the series back in their favor, one feels he may be forced to make yet another lineup change, one that involves Baynes returning to the starting five. Thompson finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds on the night for Cleveland, his size and length becoming a major headache for Horford defensively. On the surface, it would appear that Baynes would be better suited to guard Thompson, allowing Horford to slip down and defend Kevin Love. This would of course interfere with Stevens' plans to have Marcus Morris guard Lebron, but one could argue about the influence Morris has been had following Game 1, as James racked up 44 points last night.
Baynes recorded eight points, seven rebounds and one blocked shot in 16 minutes, though he didn't attempt a shot from beyond the arc, after averaging 2.25 three-points attempts per game over his previous eight.
Fortunately for Boston, they will return to the friendly confines of the TD Garden for Game 5, a fortress that has provided only success for the men in green. They hold a 9-0 record at home in the playoffs this season, whilst on the road, their record now falls to 1-6.
The last season a team was able to reach Game 5 of the conference finals with only one road win was in 2008. That year, said team won the conference finals in six games and then went on to win the championship. They were of course, the 2007/08 Boston Celtics. If you are the type to believe in sports omens, that may prove to be a meaningful stat looking ahead. For now, the Celtics hold the slightest of advantages with home court. To maintain that edge, they need to regain control and remain unbeaten at home.
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals series between Boston and Cleveland is scheduled for 10:30am Thursday morning AEST, 24th of May 2018.