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Despite Game 4 loss, the fire is lit in these Celtics

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There are dozens of excuses the Celtics could make after a frustrating loss in Game 4 tied up the Eastern Conference Finals, but the bottom line is that after the first quarter, Boston was the better team.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Ugh.

You can complain about the officiating; both teams could make a case that it was awful last night. You can point to the superstar calls that LeBron James gets that no Celtic is afforded at home or on the road. Sorry, but that’s just the NBA. Or maybe it was Brad Stevens’ faith that Terry Rozier could cover LeBron on those switches. Spoiler alert: he couldn’t. But in the end, the Eastern Conference Finals are now tied 2-2. After a blowout on Saturday and an infuriating loss on Monday, the Celtics return home on Wednesday night for Game 5 with lessons learned and bellies filled with regret and frustration.

A loss is a loss is a loss. During the grind of the regular season, you could write your own narrative about a moral win in a loss off a back-to-back on the road. Sometimes, circumstance and health and the bounce of the ball just aren’t in your favor. But these are the NBA Playoffs and losses are tallied in permanent marker. However, there were some bright spots. After the game, Jaylen Brown said, “we came out and we fought and it was a better effort and a better game for our team.” After a dismal first quarter that ended with Cleveland up 16, Boston would finish +7 over the rest of the game. There were signs that the Celtics were back.

As exasperating as Scott Foster and Bill Kennedy were, Boston missing bunnies all night was the balance of the game:

Make half of those and prevent at least half the points on the defensive end and Game 4 could have been a win in the Celtics’ column. After averaging 33 field goal attempts in the restricted area in Games 1 and 2, Boston was stymied in Game 3, settling for mid-range jump shots, and were only 12-of-24 at the rim. In Game 4, they were more aggressive attacking mismatches and getting out in transition against the older Cavaliers:

Despite those fifteen misses, the Celtics’ 34 FGA’s in the restricted area marks an aggressiveness to run and get to the rim that should be there when the team returns to the Garden on Wednesday night and potentially Sunday for a Game 7. And for what it’s worth, after the long layoff between Games 2 and 3, attrition could affect Cleveland more down the stretch. The series now shifts to a day-on/day-off schedule with travel and that could play in Boston’s favor.

The headline of Game 4 is LeBron’s 44, but the B-story that Celtics fans should find comfort in is the return of the underdog mindset that has fueled this post-season run up ‘til now. There were mistakes--some mental errors and others on the level of boneheaded--but you could see the dogged determination in their play that had been previously extinguished in Game 3. Despite a poor shooting night, Jayson Tatum finished with 17 points, getting to the line a team-high 8 times. After a rough first quarter, Jaylen Brown finished with 25 by relentlessly pushing the pace and driving on Kyle Korver and JR Smith. They got their swagger back. With the series tied up and the Cavaliers with all the momentum, these pitbulls are now raring for a fight.

The kicker, of course, are these Marcus Smart quotes:

It’s popular to point out the youth of this roster and to conversely compare it to their success in these playoffs, but never have I thought they lacked confidence or swagger. There were moments in Game 3 where they looked a little shell shocked, but this is a team that knows they can win now. Over the next 36 hours, there will be a lot of speculation on lineup changes, match ups, strategy, and home vs. away stats, but the common thread in all these games has been effort and hustle. Against Milwaukee and then Philadelphia, Boston was always the aggressor. After Game 4, Stevens remarked, “it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth.”

Release the pit bulls.