Irving, James turn the tables on Celtics with comeback of their own

CLEVELAND -- LeBron James claimed that some type of adversity would be necessary for the Cleveland Cavaliers to find their ultimate playoff success following an epic meltdown in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Tuesday's Game 4 against the Boston Celtics might have brought more adversity than even James bargained for. For the first time in his 14-year career -- more than 1,200 games played in the regular season and playoffs combined -- James picked up four first-half fouls, which sent him to the bench midway through the second quarter with the Cavs down by double digits.

What followed was Cleveland's turn for a comeback, as the Cavs erased a 16-point hole to win 112-99 and take a 3-1 series lead.

While the basketball world tuned in wondering what James would do to make up for his disappearing act in Game 3, it was Kyrie Irving who stole the show with his most electrifying postseason game since Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Golden State, in which he put up 41 points in a must-win scenario.

"We knew going into halftime that we hadn't played our best basketball, so it was a conscious choice that we had to make on our end: How bad did we want it?" Irving said.

Irving erupted for 21 of his career-playoff-high 42 points in the third quarter, slicing into the lane time and again, and finishing in every way imaginable: left hand, right hand, off glass, with English, in the half court or on the break.

By the time he capped the quarter with a 26-foot, step-back 3-pointer, the Cavs had turned a 10-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead and Irving had delivered one of the finest 12-minute stretches imaginable, hitting nine of 10 shots from the field, pushing through a left-ankle tweak and scoring the Cavs' final 14 points in the period.

"He's a special kid," James said of Irving. "He's a special talent. As the stakes get higher and higher, his game gets higher and higher, but it was nothing surprising for me."

James bounced back with the type of dominant night that typified his production during the Cavs' 10-0 start to the playoffs and more than made up for his 11-point clunker Sunday. He recorded 34 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds. Twenty-four of those points came in the second half, all while he managed those four fouls.

But he didn't make it out of the night without at least one sequence that brought to mind Sunday's bizarre Game 3. James caught a Kevin Love outlet pass in stride with the Cavs down 69-68 midway through the third quarter, and his hammer dunk rimmed in and out, stifling the Cleveland crowd just when it was ready to go crazy celebrating the Cavs' first lead since they were up 5-0.

"I've missed a couple dunks in my career," James said. "I think I've made more than I've missed, though. Percentages are pretty good."

No matter, more reasons to cheer were about to come.

Love continued his strong series with 17 points and 17 rebounds. J.R. Smith, on the day his family brought their daughter, Dakota, home from the hospital for the first time since she was delivered prematurely in January, scored five points on two momentum-boosting plays in a tip dunk and 3-pointer.

It was the Cavs' second double-digit comeback after the half this postseason (they stormed back from 26 down in Indiana in Game 3 of the first round), and they joined the Golden State Warriors with two such second-half surges in these playoffs.

James' fouls were merely part of a disastrous first half for the Cavs, who committed nine turnovers that led to 13 points for the Celtics. They also were outrebounded 19-17.

Cleveland missed 13 of the 19 shots it attempted in the first quarter but finished hitting 38 of its final 55 attempts (69.1 percent). The Cavs' 59.5 percent for the game tied the franchise record for shooting efficiency in the playoffs (they did so against Boston on May 7, 2010).

The Cavs' second-half defense was just as impressive, as they held the Celtics to a measly 42 points after the break. Overall, James and Irving outscored the Celtics 60-50 after Boston took its largest lead of the game with 5:30 left in the first half.

"The importance of a Game 4, especially the way we came out in Game 3, you know, in the back of my mind, I was like, I'm saying to myself, 'We cannot -- they cannot tie up this series,' " Irving said. " 'They cannot. We cannot go to Boston 2-2.' "

James' teams are 11-0 all time in series that they led 3-1. Game 5 is Thursday at TD Garden.