BOSTON (AP) — LeBron James got to the arena early. When he left the Cleveland Cavaliers had a chance to put an early end to the series.
James scored 31 points in his first playoff game in Boston since a masterful performance in the 2012 postseason. And Cleveland moved one win away from a sweep in its first playoff series in five years with a 103-95 victory Thursday night.
James arrived an hour early at the morning shootaround, accompanied by teammate J.R. Smith. It was a sign of his leadership, according to coach David Blatt.
“He didn’t necessarily have to” after scoring 30 points in Game 2, Blatt said, “but he wanted to be with his teammate.”
Smith had his best game of the series with 15 points.
“We were together last night watching playoff games,” James said. “He said he wanted to go early and I said, ‘Let’s go.'”
Cleveland can complete the sweep of the best-of-seven series Sunday in Boston. No NBA team has won a series after trailing 3-0.
“You want to make sure that we play as well as possible for however many games we have left,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
Kevin Love added 23 points for Cleveland, none bigger than two 3-pointers after Boston cut the lead to 95-92 on Evan Turner’s 3-pointer with 2:45 left. Those shots put Cleveland up 101-93 with 26 seconds to go.
“Kevin has been great,” Blatt said. “Maybe he didn’t score as much in the second game as he did tonight, or in the first game, but he’s been engaged at both ends” of the court.
Turner had 19 points and Avery Bradley added 18 for Boston while Isaiah Thomas managed just five points and missed seven of nine shots after scoring 22 in the first two games.
“They’re paying him a lot of attention,” Stevens said. “For whatever reason, he was having an off night.”
It was James’ first postseason game in Boston since Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals when he was with Miami. He had 45 points and 15 rebounds in that game to avoid elimination. The Heat won Game 7 at home then beat Oklahoma City for James’ first NBA title.
On Thursday he was booed nearly every time he touched the ball in the first half. The Celtics led 48-44 before the Cavaliers closed with a 12-0 run for a 56-44 lead. In the last 40 seconds, James had six points and a steal.
Boston tied it at 56 by scoring the first eight points of the third quarter. Then Cleveland went on another spurt and took a 77-66 lead on a 3-pointer by Kyrie Irving with just under 4 minutes left in the period.
The Cavaliers led 84-76 after three quarters before James opened the fourth by scoring Cleveland’s first seven points for a 91-82 lead then fed Tristan Thompson with an alley-oop pass.
Cleveland is in its first playoff series since 2010 when it lost the Eastern Conference semifinals to Boston in six games. Two months later, James left for the Heat and led them to the NBA Finals in all four of his seasons, winning two championships before returning to the Cavaliers this season.
James finished with 11 rebounds and just two turnovers after committing 11 in the first two games. Love had nine rebounds.
Cavaliers: Love had nine points in the opening quarter after totaling just three in the first 12 minutes of the first two games. … Irving didn’t make his first field goal until he hit a 3-pointer with 6:27 left in the third quarter, giving Cleveland a 70-66 lead.
Celtics: Stevens coached his first NBA home playoff game but watched as a fan in the 2008 playoffs in the building. … Boston made six of its first seven shots in the third quarter.
The Celtics played more physically in the first half than they did in the first two games. Jonas Jerebko knocked down Irving on a hard foul and Smith received a technical while players milled around. And in the final minute, Turner received a flagrant foul against James, who then made two free throws and a jumper on the game’s next possession.
Stevens was impressed with his players’ energy and spirit but said they lacked poise.
After the game, he repeated to his players a statement he once heard: “‘When considering the consequences of not doing the little things, you realize there are no little things.’ That applies to us right now.”
ON THE GLASS
Thompson came up with some key offensive rebounds down the stretch, just as he did in Cleveland’s 99-91 win in Game 2. One of the biggest came on the possession when Love hit his last 3-pointer.
“He just outworked us,” Bradley said.
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