CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers made their last home game of 2016 and LeBron James’ final one as a 31-year-old a victory.
Not that it was easy.
In a battle of two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, the Cavs nearly blew a 20-point lead before prevailing 124-118 Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
Cleveland (24-7), which won for the 11th time in 13 games, was a missed Jae Crowder 3-pointer away from potentially blowing this one, as stubborn Boston (19-14), which lost for just the second time in its last eight games, refused to quit.
James, who will turn 32 today, had an interesting night, finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and eight costly turnovers, including one in the backcourt where he lost all focus and batted the ball back toward Kyrie Irving without noticing Boston’s Avery Bradley, who immediately converted a layup to make it a three-point game.
“I was horrible tonight,” James said. “In every facet of the game, I was awful.
“I give myself an ‘F’ for tonight’s game,” he added. “I’ve got to be better.”
Fortunately for James, he had Irving, who was magnificent in putting up 32 points, five boards and 12 assists before leaving late in the game with a cramp in his hamstring, and Kevin Love, who finished with 30 points and 15 rebounds while making 6 of 16 3-pointers.
Tristan Thompson added 11 points and nine boards for the Cavs, who were outscored 35-23 in the fourth quarter, when Boston coach Brad Stevens went to the end of his bench.
“They put their second-and-a-half, third unit in the game,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “I think (Stevens) put up the white flag. ... But they just came in and played hard and made shots and we turned the ball over.”
Isaiah Thomas had 31 points and nine assists for the Celtics, while backcourt partner Avery Bradley had 23 points.
Down 20 late in the third and 18 heading into the fourth, the Celtics, behind guys like Tyler Zeller, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jonas Jerebko, made it a 108-102 game with 5:47 left, prompting a timeout from Lue.
After a missed 3-pointer from Iman Shumpert, James came up with a steal and dunk to put the Cavs up eight, but a 3-pointer by Bradley made it a five-point game with 4:49 remaining.
Soon after, a Crowder three and quick steal and layup by Bradley — on James’ eighth turnover when he disgustedly attempted to bat the ball back to Irving — made it 113-110 with 3:18 to go.
“It was lackadaisical,” Lue said of James’ mental mistake. “He didn’t think (Bradley) was going to pick up full court.
“He came to the locker room and said, ‘My fault. I was terrible tonight.’”
Bradley missed what would have been a game-tying 3-pointer, but came back with a dunk that made it a one-point game with 2:15 to go before James answered for the Cavs.
Bradley scored again to make it 115-114, but Irving hit a left-handed layup with 1:20 left. Thomas answered on a drive for Boston, but Irving came back with another one at the 53-second mark, putting Cleveland up 119-116.
Thomas looked like he had charged into James with 47.3 seconds left, but James’ left heel was on the restricted circle and the Boston point guard made both free throws to make it 119-118.
James then went to the line with 21.3 seconds to go and split a pair — he was 3-for-7 on the night — but Crowder, left open because the Cavs were determined not to let Thomas or Bradley beat them, missed a 3-pointer.
“We made somebody else beat us,” Lue said. “Fortunately for us, Crowder missed the shot.”
Cleveland’s Richard Jefferson (11 points) got the rebound, was fouled with 8.5 ticks on the clock and made both to put the Cavs up 122-118. James then stripped center Al Horford, who had one rebound in 29 minutes, on the ensuing possession.
“We had no energy in the fourth quarter,” James said. “We just had to figure out a way to win.”
Love, who had 26 of his points in the first and third periods, had nine on three 3-pointers in the first 2:58 of the second half as the Cavs went up 76-61.
Cleveland built its lead to 20 later in the third before settling for a 101-83 lead heading into the fourth.
“I told Ty I was going to shoot 20 (3-pointers),” Love joked. “I was a little (angry) I didn’t get that. There were a lot of open looks, and I felt like five more of them could have gone down.”
An ultra-aggressive Love took 11 shots, including seven 3-pointers, in the first period. The power forward had 11 points in the first 5:02 and 15 in the quarter as the Cavs took a 32-25 lead.
Cleveland, which started the game with quarter scoring totals of 32, 34 and 35 points, seemed to take total control in the third period before Boston nearly stole a win in the fourth.
“You’re not going to win many games playing like that,” Love said. “We were able to make enough plays in the end to put them away, but they’re a resilient team.”