BOSTON -- After much was made about a reported exchange of words that Kyrie Irving and LeBron James later denied ever having following a loss in Portland, it was some well-timed communication between the two that keyed the Cleveland Cavaliers' 122-121 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday night.
James and Irving combined to score 25 of the Cavs' 38 fourth-quarter points as Cleveland stormed back from a 19-point deficit with 11:35 remaining to extend their winning streak to three.
Irving (27 points) started the surge, scoring 12 of his 15 fourth-quarter points in the first three minutes of the period and then imploring James to take over.
"Kyrie told me to be aggressive and stop being so passive," James said after a game-high 41 points. "Early in the fourth quarter he got it going, so I kind of laid back and let him go and he said, 'Be aggressive and make some plays.' So I told him all he got to do is talk to me."
James scored 31 points through the first three quarters but had only upped that total to 33 midway through the fourth, when Irving asked him to turn it up.
James responded in a big way. From 5:42 remaining until 1:11 left on the clock, he scored nine of the Cavs' 14 points, turning an eight-point deficit into a two-point lead.
"I know what he's capable of and everybody in the world knows what he's capable of, and it's more or less I feel like sometimes he takes his foot off the gas a little bit when he can punish guys," Irving said. "And he knows it. He's been in this league a long time. I'm not telling him anything he doesn't know. But it's just more or less being a great teammate and telling him, 'We need you right now. We need you to be the LeBron James that you've been, tonight, for three quarters.' It's important for our team for him to be aggressive.
"When he's aggressive, I feel like everybody raises their game. I think he had, what, 29 [points] in the middle of the third. I just told him to continue what he's been doing all game, especially in the fourth. We need it. When we're getting stops and we're pushing it in transition, that's where he's best at, and he showed that. We need him to be aggressive in order to open up opportunities for all of us."
Cavs coach David Blatt appreciated how Irving and James complemented one another down the stretch.
"Those are two players of the highest order and the highest level, and it's banal to say that's what they're supposed to do, but that's what they're supposed to do and that's what they do," Blatt said.
Added James: "I've always liked that. I've always liked to be challenged when you hear it from a coach or from a teammate."
Now the challenge rests in fixing the Cavs' defense, which allowed the Celtics to shoot 54.5 percent from the field for the game and score 42 points on 16-for-22 shooting (72.7 percent) in the third quarter.
"We gave up a 40-point quarter, and that's unacceptable if we want to continue to grow," James said. "We came out and allowed them to take a lot of uncontested jumpers. [Kelly] Olynyk I think had three or four uncontested jumpers from 3 and from the elbow. They got out in transition and they started to get comfortable. There was a loose ball on the ground; we didn't get on the ground for it. There was a play where Kyrie got back and tipped the ball away and we didn't come up with that [possession]. Those are plays that are unacceptable, and that allowed them to get 40 points, allowed them to get that lead."
It got so bad in the third quarter that Blatt jokingly said he started thinking about bailing on the game to go back to his hometown of nearby Framingham, Massachusetts.
"I was really considering taking a Greyhound to Framingham at about that point," Blatt said. "I was looking for it, man. I've been on that bus more than a few times in my life, and I was looking for it. I'll tell you, this team defensively is playing in spurts and not playing consistently on that end of the floor, and when we do, we'll have a chance to be very, very good and until we do, we're going to have to win games like this."
Blatt went on to say that Cleveland's defensive deficiencies are "more about mentality than anything else." James and Irving again were on the same page when asked about their coach's assessment.
"It's an ongoing process," Irving said. "It's part of the things we got to learn as a team, especially if we want to win in this league. It's more or less a commitment that we have to make day in and day out and commit ourselves every single play that every possession is important. Once we realize that [we will improve]."
James echoed Irving, only giving his message a paternal twist.
"It's a process, and we learn from it," James said. "I think on our team we have to see what we do well and what we don't do so well. It's easy to say it, but I kind of used this analogy early this morning: Right now, I feel like the young guys are like my kids. They're not accustomed to reading textbooks. They like iPads. And you got to show them it looks better for them and that's the process we're in right now. You can't just tell them. You have to show them on film and see when they do it right this is the result of it."