The Cavaliers knew the Celtics were not about to go down without a fight in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series.
In danger of being swept, the Celtics were prepared to ramp up the intensity and LeBron James welcomed the prospect.
“I’m OK with physical play,’’ James said after he scored a game-high 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to help the Cavaliers eliminate the Celtics, 101-93, Sunday afternoon at TD Garden. “So, it doesn’t bother me.’’
The physical nature of the series finale took its toll on Kevin Love, who suffered a separated left shoulder with 5:22 remaining in the first quarter when he became entangled with Kelly Olynyk, who fought Love for rebounding position.
As the two players stumbled downcourt, arms flailing as they were locked up, it appeared Olynyk put a Ronda Rousey UFC arm bar on Love. Olynyk gave the arm a downward tug and caused Love’s shoulder to be separated.
“It was a bush-league play,’’ Love said after the game, his arm in a sling beneath his hoodie. “Olynyk was in a compromised position and had no chance to get the ball. It’s just too bad that he would go to those lengths to take somebody out of the game and do that to someone. I have no doubt in my mind that he did that on purpose.’’
Olynyk, who was assessed a personal foul, was not available in the locker room to address the matter.
“I can’t imagine there was any negative intent on Kelly,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “That’s not the type of person he is.’’
After the injury occurred, Love sprinted off the court to the locker room, bent on the left side as he favored his shoulder.
“I didn’t know the severity of it, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to come back in and play,’’ Love said. “Once it popped back into place, it was a huge relief, and we put ice on it and I’ve got some [electrical stimulation] on it now. So, we’ll go from there. Obviously, I’m not happy about it, but we’ll just try to make the best of the situation.’’
Love’s injury set a tone for the chippy play that ensued. The Cavaliers departed the Garden with the status of Love and J.R. Smith, who was ejected after committing a Flagrant-2 foul on Jae Crowder in the third quarter, uncertain for their second-round series.
“That sort of became the nature of the game,’’ said Cavaliers coach David Blatt. “What I think is more important and more complimentary to our players is the fact that we lost two starters during the course of the game. One in the first quarter and J.R. went out early in the third and he was playing very well, and we still managed to control the game.’’
The game spiraled out of control with 1:44 remaining in the second quarter when Crowder was leveled by Kendrick Perkins, who set a high screen for James.
“I went out to set a screen, a hard pick, and it was an offensive foul,’’ said Perkins, a former Celtic favorite who was booed when he knocked Crowder to the floor. Crowder sprang to his feet to challenge Perkins, triggering a skirmish.
“Guys got tangled up, there were a few words exchanged, and then you move on,’’ Perkins said.
Both players were hit with technical fouls, but Perkins was also called for a Flagrant-1 foul after officials reviewed the play.
“At times when it gets a little chippy, I think we all know one person who is going to come in and put a stop to all of that,’’ said Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. “And Big Perk is going to continue to do what he does.’’
Said Perkins, “I didn’t go in the game with any intention of trying to send any kind of a message. I just went in to play my game.’’
Smith said that was his intent as well when he caught Crowder with a backhanded punch while fighting for position beneath the basket. Crowder suffered a sprained left knee when it buckled as he fell to the floor.
As he was helped off the court, Crowder barked at the Cavaliers’ bench, calling out Smith, who wound up being ejected.
“I tried to swing my arm loose, thinking it was the best way to try and get my arm up in position to rebound, and we made contact,’’ Smith said. “There was nothing malicious about it. I didn’t try to do anything to hurt him or anybody else. That’s not the way I play the game and, unfortunately, I got a Flagrant-2. My team will advance, but it’s still not a good feeling going into the next round.’’
Asked if this ranked as the hardest-fought sweep of the playoffs, Smith said, “For sure. Not even close.’’
In the end, the Cavaliers appreciated the fight the Celtics put up.
“The Celtics gave us the test that we needed,’’ James said. “There were some things that we haven’t seen in the regular season and it will prepare us for the second round, which will be much tougher, we know that.’’