CLEVELAND – LeBron James better make sure his new MVP trophy isn’t missing. The Boston Celtics stole everything else.
Rajon Rondo tied a team playoff record with 19 assists, Ray Allen scored 22 points and the Celtics, playing with renewed confidence and looking very dangerous despite their years, opened a 25-point lead in the fourth and then survived Cleveland’s comeback for a 104-86 victory on Monday night to even their semifinal series at 1-1.
An underdog coming in, the Celtics left town with a split.
“We did everything we set out to do,” Allen said. “We’ve talked all year about closing out games. When we do that, we’re pretty good.”
After blowing an 11-point lead in the third quarter of Game 1, the Celtics almost squandered a much bigger one. They led 91-66 with 9:08 left before the Cavaliers, who have been outplayed in both games, scored 15 straight and pulled within 93-83 on James’ basket with 3:13 left.
Boston, though, closed with an 11-3 spurt and then packed up and headed home for Friday’s Game 3 thinking it can oust the Cavs.
“They believe,” Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison said.
James, who seemed to be favouring his injured right elbow, scored 24 and Jamison 16 for Cleveland, outscored 31-12 in the third.
“I’m going to continue to try to be the player I am and not use this elbow as an excuse,” James said. “I’d never use an injury as an excuse. It’s just two games. I understand the burden and the pain Cleveland fans have. I don’t feel pressure at all. I’m looking forward to Game 3.”
The Celtics seemed in control with their 25-point bulge, but they got complacent and found themselves having to scramble down the stretch when they could have been resting their starters. Boston went nearly six minutes without scoring.
“I don’t know that we handled it very well,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We were stuck on 91 for what felt like an hour. I kept telling our guys the clock was still moving. I kept telling them we just need one bucket. We need one guy to make a shot and it loosens back up.”
Up 93-83, the Celtics finally regrouped. Rondo and Allen scored, then Kevin Garnett completed a three-point play to make it 100-84, allowing Rivers to relax after watching his club play inspired ball most of the way before letting up.
Garnett finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Paul Pierce scored 14.
Rasheed Wallace, called out by Rivers after a lousy opener, added 17 points off the bench as the Celtics stripped the Cavaliers of home-court advantage in the series and gave them four days to think about went wrong.
Two years removed from their 17th NBA title, the Celtics were given little chance of getting past James and the top-seeded Cavs. Despite beating Miami in the first round, Boston was thought to be too old, too slow and too reliant on the aging Big Three of Allen, Garnett and Pierce.
But the trio combined for 54 points with Rondo, the Celtics’ jitterbugging point guard, setting them up with passes from impossible angles. Rondo matched the club’s post-season record for assists first set by Hall of Famer Bob Cousy.
“I give credit to my teammates, they made the shots,” Rondo said. “I tried to give them as easy looks as possible.”
Allen said the Celtics bought into some of the criticism that they were past their prime and their championship window had closed.
“I think people said it to try and jab at us,” Allen said. “We heard it on the road and from our own media at home. But we didn’t worry about it. I saw guys come to the gym every single day getting their shots up, working on their bodies. Everybody was ready for the challenge.”
Mo Williams, who scored 20 and led the Cavs’ Game 1 comeback, had just four on 1-of-9 shooting.
Afterward, Cleveland coach Mike Brown tore into his players.
“We did not fight back until late,” a livid Brown said, his voice rising. “We’ve gotta decide if we’re going to take the fight to them and take these games. Nothing is going to be given to us at all. Ain’t a … damn thing going to be given to us at all in this series.
“We’ve got to fight better than what we did tonight. Coming from behind in the first game, coming from behind in the second game, that’s not good enough. That’s not good enough for me or anybody in that locker room. If we expect to win that series, we’ve gotta bring more of a sense of urgency than what we brought tonight. Plain and simple they kicked our behinds.”
Up by four at halftime, the Celtics wasted no time pushing their lead to double digits in the third.
Pierce and Allen hit three-pointers, and with James tentative – perhaps because of the elbow – and the Cavaliers unable to get anything going on offence or contain Rondo, the Celtics’ lead ballooned to 74-57 on Kendrick Perkins’ basket underneath.
At that point, Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao showed his frustration by blatantly slamming into Allen on a baseline drive. Boston’s guard was sent sprawling and Varejao was assessed a flagrant foul. Allen split the free throws, but on Boston’s next trip, he drained a three-pointer from deep in the corner to make it 78-57.
Anthony Parker threw up his hands in disgust as the Cavs were unable to stop the Celtics’ surge.
The Cavs weren’t done, though. James finally shifted into attack mode, and Cleveland held Boston without a field goal for 5:39 as the Cavs crept back into it.
But Pierce’s basket with 3:29 ended the Celtics’ long dry spell and Boston managed to do enough to prevent a historic meltdown.
James was presented with his second straight MVP trophy before the game by NBA commissioner David Stern, who would like to see the superstar re-sign in Cleveland since it would validate the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement he helped negotiate.
However, James didn’t appear to be himself, and in the third quarter he looked over at Cleveland’s bench and complained about his elbow.
He’s got more to think about now.
NOTES: Varejao left in the third with back spasms and did not return. … Boston leads the league in technicals this post-season. “That was our goal,” Rivers joked. “We are an emotional team.” … Rivers said he sent four plays from Game 1 into the league to be reviewed. He wouldn’t say which ones. “I’m scared to tell you which ones because I may get fined for it,” he said. “But they said I was right.” … All five Celtics starters scored in double figures.