LOS ANGELES (AFP) – LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers thrashed the Boston Celtics 116-86 on Saturday, powering their way back into the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
The Cavaliers trimmed the deficit in the best-of-seven series to 2-1 – avoiding the 0-3 hole from which no NBA team has returned to win a series. They’ll try to even things up when they host game four tonight.
The Cavaliers, trying to return to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year, insisted after two double-digit defeats in Boston that things would be different on their home floor.
They wasted no time in making it so, racing to a 12-4 lead midway through the first quarter, which they ended leading 32-17.
By then, James and George Hill had already scored more than 10 points apiece, and half a dozen Cavaliers players finished by scoring in double digits.
James led the way with 27 points, 12 rebounds and five assists along with two steals and two blocked shots.
James made eight of his 12 shots from the floor, including all three of his three-pointers, and went 8-of-10 at the free-throw line.
But James, whose 42-point triple double was in vain in game two, got plenty of support in a game in which Cleveland never trailed.
Kyle Korver scored 14 points off the bench. Hill and Kevin Love scored 13 apiece, JR Smith chipped in 11 and Tristan Thompson scored 10.
Cleveland out-rebounded Boston 45-34, holding the Celtics to 39.2 percent shooting.
“We were really good,” James said. “We had our focus and offensively and defensively we made plays.”
Hill and Smith, who were a combined 1-for-11 from three-point range in the first two games, had three apiece and the Cavs drained a total of 17 from beyond the arc.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 18 points.
Jaylen Brown, who scored 23 points in each of the first two games, finished with 10 points and five fouls. He didn’t score at all until the second quarter. Terry Rozier scored 13, but connected on just five of 12 shots from the floor as the Cavaliers stepped up their defensive effort.
“I think tonight as a group, even when things broke down, we just covered for one another,” James said. “We made them make extra passes, we made them make extra dribbles. So we were flying around. I just happened to be one of the guys on the floor.”
Cleveland led 61-41 at halftime and 87-63 through three quarters.
“It was really a great defensive game for us,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. “I thought offensively we moved it around a little bit more, had a lot of assists. I thought JR and G-Hill did a good job of setting the tone early, being aggressive, playing with more pace, more force.
“Having six guys in double figures, that’s big,” Lue added. “I thought we played an all-around game tonight, defensively and offensively.”
Third quarters have been problematic for the Cavs in these playoffs, but Love opened the period with a three-pointer, a three-point play and an alley-oop pass to James as Cleveland stretched their lead to 69-43.
Cleveland didn’t let up, pushing the lead to 104-74 with 7:02 remaining. Boston coach Brad Stevens, whose Celtics have excelled at home this post-season but fell to 1-5 on the road, said the venue was irrelevant.
“We can’t play like we played tonight no matter where we played,” he said. “If we would have played in Boston like that, we would have gotten beat. The valuable lesson is that Cleveland outplayed us. We’ve got a game on Monday, and we’ve got to be ready to play better.”