LeBron James scored 44 points, adding more records to his amazing NBA legacy, and powered the Cleveland Cavaliers over Boston 111-102 Monday, equalizing their Eastern Conference final at two wins each.
The 33-year-old superstar made 17-of-28 shots from the floor, 1-of-4 from 3-point range, and 9-of-13 free throws while contributing five rebounds, three assists and two steals to spark a crucial home triumph.
“I’ve just put a lot of work in,” said James of his point production. “The Man Above has given me some abilities I try to take advantage of.”
The best-of-seven showdown, level at 2-2, continues Wednesday at Boston, where the Celtics are undefeated in these playoffs, with game six on Friday in Cleveland, where the Cavs have won seven in a row.
“There’s no love in there if you’re not wearing green,” James said of Boston. “If we play like we did in (games) three and four, I think we’ll have a good shot.”
The series winner will face either season wins leader Houston or defending champion Golden State in the NBA Finals starting May 31.
James seeks his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals and fourth with the Cavaliers.
In unleashing his sixth 40-point performance of this year’s playoffs, the most such efforts in any year since Allen Iverson’s six in 2001, James rose to second on the all-time 40 or more playoff game list, passing NBA legend Jerry West with his 21st such total.
And with his sixth basket of the night, James passed the old mark for career playoff field goals of 2,356 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“Any time I’m in the same breath with the greats, it’s just humbling,” James said. “I think it’s pretty cool.”
– Cavaliers dominate early –
The Celtics outscored the Cavs in each of the final three quarters but never managed to overcome Cleveland’s ferocious start.
James had five points in a 10-0 run that gave the Cavs a 19-10 edge on the way to a 34-18 lead after the first quarter, Cleveland closing the period on a 13-3 run and the Celtics missing three dunks in the opening 12 minutes.
“Once we settled down after the first we played much better. I don’t think they were doing anything different,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “We have to execute better. It’s much harder on the road.”
James scored 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first half and Kyle Korver added 14 points off the bench, all in the first half, as Cleveland led by as many as 19 points and opened a 68-53 half-time advantage.
“He’s the best in the game at evaluating the game and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of James. “You have to make it as tough on him as possible.”
Although the Celtics trimmed the deficit to 89-76 entering the fourth quarter and made a charge within eight, the rally was too little and too late.
“We were a lot better defensively, making them take contested shots, make the extra pass,” James said. “We have to have the same mindset we had the past two games. If our mind is there, we have what it takes to be victorious.”
– Turnovers deadly for Cavs –
Tristan Thompson added 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Cavaliers, who need to win once at Boston to advance.
“They hit us in the mouth. We struck back,” Thompson said. “The real test is how we play in Boston.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue hopes it won’t match Monday’s 18 turnovers, twice as many as the Celtics.
“Turning the basketball over has been killing us in this series,” Lue said. “We like what we’re doing defensively holding them to 41 percent (shooting). We just have to take better care of the ball.”
Jaylen Brown led Boston with 25 points while Jason Tatum netted 17, Terry Rozier contributed 16 points and 11 assists and Horford added 15 points.
“Right now we’re fighting for our playoff lives,” Horford said. “We have a big challenge.”