BOSTON – The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers lost a postseason closeout game was May 18, 2008 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Their opponent? The Boston Celtics.
Cleveland has since won 12 consecutive series-clinching games and would establish an NBA-record streak Thursday night if it wins Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Standing in its way once again, however, are the Celtics, who, trailing 3-1 in the series, will stop at nothing to extend their postseason while playing in front of their home crowd.
The Cavs enjoyed a 44-point blowout the last time they played at TD Garden in Game 2, but head coach Tyronn Lue expects “a lot of fight” from Boston as it looks to avoid elimination.
“They came to our building and beat us in Game 3 by just scrapping and competing,” Lue said of the C’s Thursday morning ahead of Cleveland’s shootaround. “They came into Game 4 and we were down 16 on our home floor, so this team is not going to give up, they’re not going to stop playing, and we understand that.”
LeBron James said closeouts are by far the most challenging games of a postseason series. While the Cavs still have room to breathe, the Celtics will be playing desperate basketball knowing that if they don’t win, their season is over.
“They’ve got one life to live and pride kicks in even more because you want to try to extend the series,” said James. “Every possession is even more magnified, so it’s a tough game.”
One would think that playing on the road in a series-clinching situation would make it even tougher on the Cavs, but they’ve proven that to be no obstacle in the past. Ten of their last 12 closeout wins have come on the road, which they attribute to their consistent approach regardless of the environment.
“It’s a mindset, just being prepared, being ready, knowing you’re going to expect a team’s best shot that night,” said Lue. “If we come out with a defensive mindset, I think we’ll be fine.”
The Cavaliers had no problem handling business in Boston during Games 1 and 2 of the series, but the C’s responded with two great battles in Cleveland despite being without leading scorer Isaiah Thomas.
Lue has noticed an increase in grit from Boston ever since losing its All-Star point guard.
“(Jae) Crowder is tough, Avery (Bradley) is tough, Marcus Smart is tough, (Al) Horford; those guys play hard, compete and bring a physicality to the game, and they’re never going to give up,” said the coach. “Their mindset hasn’t changed (since Thomas went down), it’s just the way they’re playing has changed.”
The Cavs expect Boston’s toughness to magnify even more Thursday night when it puts its season on the line. They know that a 44-point blowout will likely not be in the cards this time around when they step onto the parquet floor.
“We know they’re going to be extremely excited to be back here and try to extend this series,” said James. “We understand that the closeout game is always the toughest, especially on the road.”
Especially when that game is being played at TD Garden – the last place the Cleveland Cavaliers lost a series-clinching contest.