The Celtics are going back to the crib

MY COUCH — This was inevitable. Or so I’ll tell myself. After the Celtics fleeced the Cavaliers in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, they folded a pair in Cleveland. You don’t want to bluff LeBron James down the river, but now they’re all in on Game 5, like it or not.

The Celtics upped the ante, and the Cavs called. You will hear how this series has swung in Cleveland’s favor following a 111-102 flop that evened the series. The Cavs shot 66 percent in the first half, LeBron scored 44 points for the game, and together they held the C’s at arm’s length like the older brother who relishes in his little brother throwing punches that never land.

But there is hope for these C’s, and that’s why we play this game. Hope beyond outscoring the Cavs 84-77 after digging a devastating 16-point hole in the first quarter. Hope beyond merely going home, where they’re 9-0 in these playoffs, for a Game 5 and a Game 7 if they get there.

“We don’t know what we’re going to see in Game 5,” James told reporters of going back to the Garden. “Only the game gods know that. We know it’s going to be a hostile environment.”

In Game 4, the Celtics trailed by as many as 19 points in the first half, and they closed within seven twice in the final seven minutes, but every time they could have made Cleveland nervous, they gave back everything they worked so hard to get. It was frustrating, but the sort of frustrating you can find encouraging if you play your cards right — unlike that bust in Game 3.

These Cavs are frontrunners, and the Celtics let them run from the front. The C’s missed six layups or dunks in the first quarter and 15 shots in the restricted area altogether. It was a failed Jayson Tatum dunk that led to a LeBron and-one and a seven-point Cleveland lead that got the ball rolling and a botched Jaylen Brown layup with a minute to play that put the nail in the coffin.

This can’t happen again. Not in Boston.

In between, neither of the C’s two youngest guns played all that well, even if they were their two top scorers, combining for 42 points on 36 shots. (LeBron scored his 44 on 28 attempts.) Terry Rozier took too many wild shots early in the clock and got punished by LeBron in switching schemes over and over and over again. And Marcus Smart was brutal between the hustle.

“Back to the crib,” Smart reminded reporters and himself in defeat. “We play well at the crib.”

As usual, Al Horford was solid, not that you’d know from his stat line, and as usual, the Celtics felt his presence most when he was sitting out a hand. When Horford rested in the final three minutes of the first quarter, the Cavaliers doubled an eight-point lead, and when Horford rested for the final three minutes of the third quarter, the Cavaliers pushed a nine-point lead back to 15.

This can’t happen again. Not in Boston.

The officiating was brutal for both sides, but there was one call — oh, boy, was there one call. Kevin Love undercut Marcus Morris for a four-point play that slashed Cleveland’s lead to nine early in the third quarter. Not only that, but it was Love’s fourth foul with 22 minutes remaining.

Except, referee Bill Kennedy said Morris kicked his leg — something he does naturally — whistling him for an offensive foul and erasing the bucket. Instead, it was Morris’ fourth foul, and the C’s best LeBron defender was playing scared the rest of the way. Suddenly the two Celtics buckets that followed didn’t seem so momentous when the deficit was still double digits.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens won’t bite. He controls what he can control, which is smart. I am not Smart. “You won’t hear me complain about officials,” he said. “They have a really hard job.”

The Celtics still scrapped for opportunities. They cut Cleveland’s lead to eight with 8:28 left. Horford missed an open 3, Brown missed a layup, Rozier missed another 3, and Aron Baynes missed one of two free throws, all sandwiched around a Smart turnover. Anything other than what happened would have meant a two-possession game, if not closer. They were within single digits several other times, and it was the same story. To rehash every hand is just maddening.

This can’t happen again. Not in Boston.

For as much as LeBron’s 44 looked shiny and bright in the box score, Cleveland’s role players were the real killer. Kyle Korver, George Hill, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Larry Nance Jr. combined for 56 points on 36 shots. They scored 44 points on 51 shots in two games in Boston. The C’s can withstand a monster LeBron game, but not when the others are frontrunning, too.

“We were a little bit better than the other night,” said Stevens, who’s probably watched the game film a few times by now, “but I don’t know how we could be much worse than the other night.”

This is Game 5 against LeBron James in a conference finals series tied two games apiece. Al Horford’s entire career has led to this moment. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown dreamed of this moment. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris fought for this moment. We’re here.

That stack they built in Boston is all but gone, but the Garden is still their ace in the hole. There’s only one way to win back the chips. They’re either all in or they’re just bleeding out. If King James gets his royal flush at the turn, so be it. That’s under the game gods’ control now.

“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals,” said Stevens. “Doesn’t get better than that. Anybody that didn’t think this was going to be tough — I mean, everything is tough. In this deal, it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again.”

The Celtics that just folded a pair in Cleveland, those aren’t the Celtics we’ve known. These little brothers have thrown haymakers all year, and it’s time they show their cards back at the crib.

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