BOSTON – LeBron James drove to the basket, the lane surprising clear. He reached out toward the rim, rolled the ball off his fingertips …
And missed. Again and again (and one more time, when it was too late anyway), James’ shots went awry in the final minute, completing one of the worst nights of his career and giving the Boston Celtics a 76-72 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Game 2 is Thursday night in Boston.
“This was two heavyweights, just body-punching,” said Kevin Garnett, who scored 28 points to make up for an off night for the rest of Boston’s Big Three. “There was no finesse, no jabs, just an all-out, beat-down, defensive fight.”
Boston held James to 12 points on 2-for-18 shooting; only once in his career has he made fewer baskets. He missed three drives and a three-pointer in the final minute, including the potential game-tying finger roll with 8.5 seconds left.
“I missed a lot of shots I know I can make,” James said, staring at the stat sheet incredulously after scoring just two points in the second half and missing his last six shots in all. “I missed layups. Those layups I’ve made my whole life.”
Paul Pierce and Ray Allen of the Celtics weren’t doing any bragging, either. Pierce scored four points on 2-for-14 shooting, and Allen was 0-for-4 from the field for his first scoreless performance in his last 852 games since 1997.
Combined, they matched the dud James put out there miss-for-miss.
“Me and Ray, we figure if we play him to a standstill … we give ourselves the best chance,” Pierce said. “He is not going to go 2-for-18 every game but, hey, we’re going to do our best to try to make him.”
At least Pierce could smile about it.
Despite the worst offensive playoff performance of his career, he drew two charging fouls against James and the Celtics protected the home-court advantage that helped win their first-round series against Atlanta in seven games and could take them all the way to their NBA-record 17th championship.
They can thank their MVP candidate, Garnett, who finished third in the voting announced Tuesday, behind winner Kobe Bryant and runner-up Chris Paul. James finished fourth.
“That is why we have three superstars,” said Celtics centre Kendrick Perkins, who had 12 rebounds.
And Cleveland only has one.
Only once has James made fewer than two baskets – in a Dec. 29, 2004 game against Houston when he missed all five shots in just 17 minutes. “I fractured my cheekbone,” he said immediately when asked about it.
He’ll remember this one, too.
James scored Cleveland’s first basket and then missed his next 10 shots before driving for a layup that cut Boston’s lead to 66-65 with 5:34 left. He finished with nine rebounds, nine assists and 10 turnovers.
“He had a tough night, and he is entitled to it,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. “Knowing him, he will definitely bounce back in Game 2.”
Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Cavaliers, who shot 31 per cent and couldn’t make a basket at the end of the game.
Boston led 68-65 when Daniel Gibson hit a 3-pointer to tie it with 3:18 left.
Ilgauskas made a jumper on a feed from James with 90 seconds left, then Garnett hit a fallaway to make it 70-all. James drove against Pierce and flopped to the court while throwing up a desperation layup that wasn’t close.
Sam Cassell made two free throws to tie it 72-72; James missed again, but this time Ilgauskas was there to tip it in and tie the game. Garnett moved across the lane to give Boston back the lead, 74-72 as Cleveland called a timeout with 22 seconds left.
James dribbled at the point before finding a lane to the basket, but his shot wouldn’t fall and James Posey was fouled after grabbing the rebound. He hit both free throws.
James missed a long but meaningless jumper to punctuate his night.
Notes: “I just thought that LeBron should have been higher,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of the MVP voting, pausing for effect. “We’re playing Cleveland, right? As a matter of fact, I thought he should have won.” … Cleveland shot 18 of the game’s first 22 free throws. … Cassell was called for a flagrant foul when he kept James from a free throw with 5 1/2 minutes left in the half. The replay seemed to indicate that James enhanced the damage, and the Boston fans let him know they were on to him. … Cleveland’s Wally Szczerbiak missed his first five shots before going to the bench in the first quarter. … Boston’s Rajon Rondo had all of his 15 points in the first half.