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2017 NBA Playoffs

Celtics show signs of life as Smart, Bradley lead furious comeback over Cavaliers

Who gets the blame as Boston rallies from 21 points down to extend series?

On a shocking night in which the Boston Celtics defeated the host Cleveland Cavaliers 111-108, it was easy to cast blame.

You could blame the Cavaliers as a whole for taking their feet off the throats of a team they led by 21 points in the third quarter.

You could blame J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert for the poor defensive rotation on Boston’s final possession, allowing Avery Bradley to become wide open on his game-winning 3-pointer with one-tenth of a second remaining.

You could place a hefty dose of blame on LeBron James, who didn’t score a single fourth-quarter point and, in a game-high 45 minutes, had the lowest scoring total (11) of every starter not named Amir Johnson (the Boston starting forward had two).

We’ll come back to the blame later. Right now, we’ll take the time to credit the Celtics. Seemingly on life support just two days after a 44-point embarrassment that stands as the worst margin of defeat in Eastern Conference Finals history, the Celtics played tough and played together down the stretch for a victory that guarantees a return home to Boston for Game 5 on Thursday.

Bradley’s shot was huge, a wide-open 3-pointer that took several bounces on the rim before falling through the net. While it gave him 20 points for the game, let’s refrain from calling this the biggest shot of his career (unless the Celtics come back and tie the series on Tuesday).

But Bradley doesn’t get into that position if Marcus Smart, thrust into the starting role after the season-ending injury to Isaiah Thomas, doesn’t have the game of his life. Smart had career playoff highs in points (27), field goals (eight) and 3-pointers (seven), resembling the player who dominated during his two years of college at Oklahoma State. Smart scored 19 points in the second half, when he hit five of six 3-pointers, helping the Celtics rebound from the 21-point deficit.

“It all started with Marcus and how poised he was on both ends of the court,” Bradley said.

Bradley doesn’t get a chance for heroics if not for the play of Jonas Jerebko — raise your hand if you knew Jerebko was in the NBA — who scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds in 13 minutes off the bench. You can almost forgive the Cavaliers for leaving Jerebko open on the huge 3-pointer he hit with 30 seconds left since, going into Sunday night, he didn’t have a body of work that Cleveland could prepare for. (He played 16 garbage-time minutes on Friday after four straight games of not playing.)

Jerebko, the Swedish sensation who’s been in the league for eight years, was a big factor in the third quarter as the Celtics chipped away at the big deficit. When he stood over Kevin Love and screamed at the fallen Cavaliers forward in the third quarter, he showed that the Celtics were not going to be punked.

“Guys that haven’t played quite as much, there’s a real energy and desire to go out and put it all out there,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “[Jerebko] has done a good job of staying in shape and staying the course. Jonas was a huge reason why we won.”

The Celtics might not have won on Bradley’s shot had Al Horford not wrapped his right arm briefly around Tristan Thompson’s waist, keeping the Cavaliers forward from rotating to Bradley, who came from the left corner to the top left of the 3-point line. Bradley came free after both Smith and Shumpert followed a cutting Jae Crowder into the lane.

“All we can do is control the way we play,” Bradley said. “The last 48 hours were hard, it was embarrassing. We were pretty down when we left the arena [Friday night]. We got together the next day, and we knew if we came out and played hard, we’d give ourselves a chance.”

Now, about those Cavaliers: After winning by 44 on Friday (in a game they led by 41 at the half), Cleveland entered the game as 16.5-point favorites. That makes Boston’s win the biggest upset in the NBA this season and the largest upset in the playoffs over the past 20 years.

James took the blame for the Game 3 loss after being brilliant during this postseason. He had scored 30 points in eight straight playoff games, tied for the longest stretch in NBA history in a single postseason. James didn’t score a point over the last 16:31 of the game, missing all four of his shots in that span. He was awful on 3-pointers (he missed all four), sloppy in handling the ball (six turnovers) and lacked aggression in attacking the basket.

It appeared, for the entire game, that James and the Cavaliers were more interested in making the highlight-worthy play rather than the right play.

“They doubled me a little more in the post, and my performance, personally, is all on me,” James said. “I didn’t have it. It’s the postseason.”

And James’ thoughts as Bradley let his last-second shot fly?

“When you let a team have momentum like that,” James said, “you knew that last shot was going in.”

Watching James go scoreless for an entire fourth quarter for the first time at home since 2006 was perplexing. Before Sunday night, James-led playoff teams that had leads of 20 points or more were 49-0.

Now that record stands at 49-1 with Cleveland’s first loss of this postseason. All the greats have a bad game, but GOAT (greatest of all time) debaters will walk away from Sunday night’s performance saying that Michael Jordan would never go out with 11 points in a playoff loss. Jordan’s lowest-scoring game in a playoff loss was 18 in the 1989 conference finals against Detroit.

When the weekend started, it appeared the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors were on course to go undefeated entering their third straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

Then Sunday night happened.

“It’s the postseason. You win some, you lose a couple, maybe,” James said. “It hurts. It’s a loss in the postseason. Let’s regroup and let’s get back to playing desperate basketball, which they did tonight.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.