There really wasn’t anything on the line Sunday afternoon when the Celtics hosted the Cavaliers, except for pride. The Celtics were coming off three straight difficult defeats, including a dreadful loss to an undermanned Rockets team and this was their last chance to make a statement against one of the NBA’s top teams.
Those are good enough stakes for an end of the regular season contest, but after the Celtics built a 22-point lead against a team that was playing without two of its top big men, it suddenly became very important for the Celtics. It became even bigger after their now customary fourth-quarter collapse erased that 22-point lead.
The Celtics managed to hold on for a 117-113 victory Sunday (click here for the full recap) and it felt more like a sense of relief than a milestone of some sort.
“The game wasn’t that important until we had a 20-point and then almost lost the game and then it became important,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “We couldn’t give that game away.”
But they almost did. Once again, the offense stalled and once again they allowed one player — in this case LeBron James — to almost single-handedly beat them the way Kevin Durant did last week. Once again, they missed free throws that could have iced it and failed to get stops when they needed them the most.
“They were aggressive and I thought they had us on our heels and we didn’t respond to that,” Paul Pierce said. “We’re happy with the win, but we’re not happy with the way we played in the fourth quarter.”
It was tense, chippy and a tad overdramatic with six technical fouls, several verbal altercations and an ejection for Cleveland coach Mike Brown. But for the Celtics it was very necessary.
“We needed this game,” Kevin Garnett said. “We’ve had this three-game slide. It’s definitely not sitting well with anyone in the locker room. Any time we play Cleveland it’s going to be a dog fight.”
They may get another chance sooner rather than later. With only six games left in the regular season, the Celtics are still sitting in fourth place in the East, which would lock them into a semifinal matchup with the Cavs.
It’s hard to imagine things getting any more intense between these two teams, but if they do meet again, the Celtics can at least take some comfort in a four-game regular season split. No matter how hard that second win was to get.
Here are three other things from an Easter Sunday that featured, as Rivers noted, “a lot of sinning and swearing.”
THE LAST SUPPER?
After the Houston loss, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce went out to dinner and talked about things. They talked about what they had to do and what has gone wrong. But most of all, they talked about staying together and asserting themselves for what may be one last run.
“When teams go through that type of adversity they tend to point the finger and separate and it’s brought us even closer,” Pierce said. “The Houston game was the last straw for us and that’s why we decided to go out and talk about it. If we’re going to go anywhere, we have to be the leaders. The other guys, they got to step up also, don’t take nothing from [Rajon] Rondo and [Kendrick Perkins] and those guys, but we have to be the leaders. That’s some of the things we talked about.”
They also talked about Allen’s game on Friday when he fouled out after 16 minutes and scored just five points. “It’s not in Ray’s character to foul out after 16 minutes, or foul out period,” Garnett said. “He’s a lot smarter player than that.”
On Sunday, Allen arrived at the Garden a little after 8 a.m to go through his usual routine. Early in the game Rivers put the ball in his hands and Allen drove to the basket for a layup. Then he did it again on the next possession. The Houston debacle was behind him.
Allen wound up scoring 33 points including one very big 3-pointer that put the Celtics up by four with about 48 seconds left in the game.
“When you make the pass to one of the greatest shooters of all time, besides myself, you expect him to make it,” Pierce said using one of his favorite lines this season.
He laughed after that, but then he got serious.
“I knew he was going to have a bounce-back game. The great thing about this team is that we stay together. Ray realized he didn’t really play well, didn’t really play at all. Ray was ready to come in here and step up, especially with the way the last game went because that was out of his character to foul out. He proved it and he stepped up big.”
No one has really any idea how the rest of this season will play out. Maybe the Celtics really do have one last run left in them. There isn’t a lot of evidence to support this notion, but they showed, again, for 34 minutes that when they are locked in they are very tough to beat.
Maybe they have given us everything they have to give. Considering where they were in their careers when they arrived, and where the franchise had been, they have already met expectations. We’ll find out soon.
But if they are going to do it again, Garnett, Pierce and Allen owe it to themselves to leave nothing to chance.
“The one thing that we understood since we’ve been here is that the three of us set the tone,” Garnett said. “And the others will follow.”
THE LEBRON RULES
LeBron James is the best player in the world. He is almost certainly going to win his second straight MVP and this summer a frenzy unlike anyone has ever seen will envelope him when he becomes a free agent. No one denies this and no one begrudges his achievements (expect for Kobe Bryant fans).
Because of his size and speed he is also the most difficult player in the league to officiate. Like his teammate Shaquille O’Neal before him, he is so much better physically than his opponents that he spends the majority of his time at the free throw line.
As the Cavs found themselves down by 20 points in the second half, they simply put the ball in James’ hands, cleared out a side of the court and let him go to work in simple pick-and-roll basketball.
There are two outcomes when James drives to the basket: He will either score or he will get fouled. James put up 31 shots and went to the free throw line 22 times en route to a 42-point performance. The entire game revolved around him, and again, no one begrudges him his dominance. He is a spectacular player.
However, he also played 45 minutes in a physical game that featured 54 personal fouls and 78 free throw attempts and somehow did not commit a foul. He stared down officials when he didn’t get calls. He jawed with Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett and Tony Allen, and at one point found himself in the middle of the Celtics huddle after a timeout when he and Allen continued to yap at each other.
To be sure, the Celtics are not wide-eyed innocents. “Both teams are talkers,” Rivers said. “Cleveland does a lot of stuff. And, unfortunately, we have a similar team.”
The fact that there’s no love lost between them makes it all the more entertaining.
“It was just in-game talk,” James said. “Like I said, they don’t like us and we don’t like them. So there’s a lot of things that go on, on the court.”
The Celtics mostly downplayed it. “That was just regular basketball talk,” Tony Allen said. “It wasn’t anything major.”
Garnett was asked what he said to James when he was on the free throw line, but he declined to elaborate. “Nothing in particular that I’d like to share that the league would like me to say.”
Rivers also didn’t want to get dragged into it. “You have your own opinion, write it. I’m not saying a word.”
So here’s the opinion: No other player in the league, with the possible exception of Bryant, can get away with what James gets away with, and what’s more, he doesn’t need the help. James is the best and most aggressive player in the league and he gets the vast majority of his calls honestly, but when there appear to be two sets of rules, it does the league a disservice.
TONY ALLEN: SIXTH MAN
When Rajon Rondo picked up two early fouls, Doc Rivers went to the bench and called on Tony Allen. It was a few minutes earlier than expected, but that was the plan.
Nate Robinson did not play and neither did Marquis Daniels. Allen played 19 minutes, which was more than any other reserve. He served as Rondo’s backup and he soaked up minutes in place of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
Rivers said he was trying out the alignment and if he does stick with nine players in the postseason rotation, Tony Allen will be a major part of it.
“He just plays hard,” Rivers said. “He’s our best defensive player. He’s just bought in completely to the team and the way the team plays. He’s no longer trying to score; scoring just happens. He’s trying to be the best defensive player on our team and I think he’s figured out, ‘That’s how I’m going to play.’ He gives our team energy.”
Allen also played crunch-time minutes against James, and did what he could to keep himself between him and the basket.
“Basically, I just challenged late,” Allen said. “He beat me a couple of times on the drive but for the most part I was just trying to contain the drive. Coach [Tom] Thibodeau said challenge the jump shots and if he beat me on the drive I could depend on Kevin and Perk to have [help] on the backside. You need all five of your teammates to load in and concentrate on him. He’s s talented player and he’s capable of doing those types of things.”
It wasn’t exactly a fun assignment, but Allen dug in and did what was asked. He has become the Celtics most versatile reserve, which no one would have predicted even two weeks ago. It would seem odd if it also didn’t describe his entire career.
Every time someone wants to write him off he comes back and does something that makes you change your mind, and usually also leave you shaking your head. He has been given chances like this several times in his career, but he has never been able to sustain his performance, which is why the Celtics always want to hedge their bets when it comes to him.
This may be his biggest opportunity and for once, the Celtics are not only counting on him, they’re also expecting Tony Allen to deliver. It almost defies logic, except for the fact that it’s Tony Allen … and then it makes perfect sense.