CLEVELAND – If this series goes the distance, the Celtics will lament this one. They had the Cavaliers on the ropes in their building with the league’s soon to be announced MVP playing “tentatively” in his words and then it was gone.
They lost it down the stretch, which is nothing new for them, but they lost the momentum when Mo Williams threw down a dunk, which was a first for him.
They lost even though Rajon Rondo played the half of his life and Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all played heavy minutes.
The Cavaliers 101-93 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will stick with the Celtics because they know that if they are going to pull this off they are going to have to get at least one game in this arena and the stage was set perfectly.
“We felt like we had this game and we have a lot of confidence now,” Garnett said. “We come in here with confidence. We’re not lacking anything. We’ve just got to be more consistent coming down the stretch.”
It’s been a season-long lament for the Celtics who had an 11-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter until Williams elevated and went crazy. The Celtics were outscored 58-39 in the second half and 11-3 over the final five minutes.
“It’s over with,” said Rondo who was sensational with 24 points and 12 assists. “We definitely lost an opportunity to sneak a game. We’ve got to move on.”
If nothing else the Celtics served notice that this won’t be a walkover for the Cavs, but that’s little consolation for a team that needs to take advantage of every opportunity it can get.
“There’s no moral victories,” Pierce said. “A loss is a loss.”
True, but this one will linger, and with that, here’s our three things:
THE MO WILLIAMS DIFFERNCE-MAKER
Before the game Doc Rivers talked about how the Celtics couldn’t afford to lose Williams in transition where he has broken the Celtics backs with 3-pointers. As it turned out, they saw him coming the whole time.
The Celtics had a nice, solid 69-58 when Williams stole a pass from Rondo and began streaking down the court. He had James filling one lane and Pierce back on defense. That’s when he decided to do something he had never done in a game with the Cavaliers before. He dunked.
“It was a big play,” Williams said. “Anything uncharacteristic that happens, it always sparks energy. Paul is 6-7, 6-8. I thought he would block the layup. I realized I was really high, so I figured I might try. It turned out good.”
If that was the extent of things, it would have been a nice highlight, but Williams was just getting started. He hit a 20-footer. Then a runner. Then another jump shot. After he made a pair of free throws he had scored 10 straight points for the Cavs and the lead was down to five.
By the time the quarter was over, he scored 14 of his 20 points and the Cava had a lead, which they did not give up.
“It was a big stretch,” Rivers said. “We really felt going into this that he’s one of the guys that you really have to focus on.”
Williams rather famously melted down in the Cavs conference finals loss to the Magic last season. The onus is on him to make amends this season when the Cleveland franchise has so much riding on the playoffs.
But he’s not the only one and therein lies the problem for the Celtics in this series. The Cavs have so many diverse weapons around James this time around and a number of them made huge plays in the second half including Anderson Varejao in the third and Shaquille O’Neal in the fourth.
“Well, we’re not going to overreact to that,” Garnett said. “He’s an aggressive player who can make plays. His play took the momentum. Definitely carried them into the fourth. We’ve got to address a couple of things and he’s one of them.”
RUN RAJON, RUN
Rajon Rondo has an interesting perspective on the man who’s guarding him: He doesn’t see him.
“I look at the second defender,” he said. “I don’t really look at my man really.”
During the first half, his man didn’t see him either. Rondo turned Williams inside out and put him through the spin cycle with a variety of finishing plays, one more spectacular than the next. When he didn’t finish at the rim, he finished at the free throw line where the notoriously suspect free throw shooter made 12-of-14 shots.
“Shorty was aggressive,” Garnett said. “Not only aggressive, but he was finding guys. He controlled the huddles, which is rare for him. You love to see it. He’s very, very locked it. That’s what we’re going to need. We need everybody’s contributions to defeat this team.”
In the second half things began to change. The Cavs switched Anthony Parker on him, but that wasn’t the main difference. Rondo continued to get into the lane, but he also tried to get everyone else involved. It’s a fine line that he has to straddle, but if the Celtics are going to win this series, Rondo might just have to take it upon his shoulders to get it done.
The bigger problem, however, was that the Cavs started making shots.
“Start of the third I got into the lane, but I kind of shied away from those plays and tried to get my teammates involved,” Rondo said. “Then we didn’t get stops, it’s hard to run when you’re taking the ball out of the net every time.”
The Celtics opened the game intent on working a two-man game with Rondo and Garnett in the post. It’s been a long time since Garnett controlled the game on the offensive end, but he has a serious mismatch against Antawn Jamison, and he and Rondo have an almost kinetic connection on cuts when Garnett gets the ball on the left block.
Garnett took 20 shots, which he did only once this season in a game against Phoenix in November. He was solid with 18 points, but he also missed a number of shots in the paint that he normally makes in his sleep.
The Celtics scored 52 points in the paint, but it could have been much higher and it will have to be if they are going to win games in this series.
Rondo did his part, but he also took a number of hellacious shots including one particularly hard foul from Shaq late in the game that Williams cited as a big play.
“I just hit the ground, I’m fine,” Rondo said. “I might be sore tomorrow, but I’ll get some treatment. I got a day off [Sunday]. As long as I get back up and make some free throws I don’t really care.”
A FOUL SITUATION
Rasheed Wallace picked up his third foul early in the second quarter, but he already had company in Glen Davis who got his three in the first quarter and soon added a fourth. By the time halftime rolled around, Pierce and Rondo also had three fouls.
The Cavs shot 17 free throws to the Celtics 10 and committed just eight fouls to their 15 in the first half. Those numbers evened out somewhat by the end, but the Cavs still shot 31 free throws to the Celtics 21 and were called for eight fewer fouls.
The league has cracked down on players and coaches who complain about the referees and the Celtics weren’t going to add to their already hefty tab.
“It had an impact, but not that big,” Rivers said. “It was us. Maybe mentally, guys were worried about fouls. I told them at halftime I don’t care if everybody fouls out by the third quarter. Don’t change. I told Baby, ‘I don’t care if you foul out in the first half, but you have to be an energy guy.’ He went away from being an energy guy because he was concerned about fouls.”
The general consensus in the Celtics locker room was that the foul situation did have an effect on their aggressiveness defensively, but that they had to overcome it.
“We’re on the road, man,” Garnett said. “I’ve never been in a series when you’re on the road where the refs have given the road team anything. You got to play through it. It’s not the time to be bitching and complaining to the refs. They gonna let you play, you’ve got to play.”