Kevin Love played quarterback and Kyle Korver did his best Dikembe Mutombo impression. But with LeBron James looking as relaxed and confident as he has at any point in these playoffs, the help from the non-LeBrons was just a bonus in a 111-102 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday.
James bullied his way to the basket. He continued to hit devastating midrange jumpers. He pulled down passes in traffic, got to the rim with ease and played his typical stellar defense in a complete performance that helped the Cavaliers even the series at two games apiece after an 0-2 start had many writing Cleveland’s obituary.
Suddenly, the thought of James in an eighth consecutive N.B.A. finals does not seem nearly as outlandish as it did three days ago.
And even with James’s 44 points and five rebounds, the game will most likely be remembered primarily for two things: Love’s outrageous full-court outlet pass — to James of course — and Korver turning into the unlikeliest rim protector in the N.B.A. with three blocks, all of which came on shots by Boston’s Jaylen Brown.
The Korver plays could be written off as being just a coincidence, but Love’s pass to James was a case of a pair of teammates executing a play both were born to make.
It was late in the first quarter and Cleveland already had a 6-point lead. Love positioned himself under the basket to grab a defensive rebound on a miss by Marcus Smart. After securing the ball, Love quickly turned, saw James streaking up the court, and launched a pass worthy of an N.F.L. quarterback, with the ball landing right in the hands of a leaping James.
Easily shrugging off contact from Brown and Smart, the 6-foot-8 James briefly collected himself under the basket before going up for an easy layup — or, at least, as easy as one can be in traffic at the end of a full-court pass.
The two points on that play were just a small part of Cleveland’s eventual victory, but it was the key moment in a tempo-setting quarter in which Cleveland, a team supposedly far outgunned in this series, raced to a 34-18 lead.
It would not prove to be a particularly exciting night statistically for Love, who finished with 9 points and 11 rebounds, but Korver was once again James’s most reliable teammate, getting 14 points on 4 of 9 shooting. The blocks of Brown’s shots, and his defense over all were impressive, but they paled in comparison to his influence on offense, spacing the court enough to give James precious more room inside.
The extra intensity from Korver, who has typically been thought of strictly as an offensive player, led to an amusing exchange about him between Coach Tyronn Lue and ESPN’s Rachel Nichols at Lue’s postgame news conference.
“Very rarely do you see a 36-year-old running full speed against Marcus Smart, against Terry Rozier and diving for the loose ball,” Lue said in reference to a play in which Korver sprinted down the court alongside the pair of younger and faster Celtics players.
Nichols pointed out that Korver is actually 37, which prompted a response of “God. We’re playing him too many minutes.”
The Celtics, on the other hand, stumbled early thanks to poor offensive execution. They missed dunks and short jumpers, seemingly unable to finish despite plenty of opportunities. Brown led the team in scoring with 25 points, but a resurgence in the second half, that cut the lead to 7 points, did not prove to be enough for Boston to solve its postseason-long problems with winning on the road.
The series now shifts back to Boston for Game 5, with Cleveland in full control of the momentum. But before they get too confident, they will have to recall how the Celtics looked nearly unbeatable at home. And while the Cavaliers matched that intensity in Cleveland, they will need to steal a road win if they want to make it to a fourth consecutive N.B.A. finals.