CLEVELAND – The Celtics came into this town in the midst of a coronation. Not for them, of course. They are yesterday’s news. Too old, too unfocused, too whatever the hell their problem has been this season.
The Cavaliers and LeBron James: They’re both the present and the future of the NBA. They left Cleveland on their off day after Game 1 to go to Akron to crown LeBron as the two-time Most Valuable Player. It may be cheap dime-store psychology to say that it took their eyes off the prize, but there’s no doubt that the Celtics were more desperate, urgent and focused in Game 2.
Now the Cavs have three days to think about how the old men of the Celtics came into their building and crushed them in a decisive Game 2 romp, 104-86. (Recap.)
All it means is that the series is now tied at a game apiece, but for the Celtics it was validation that they are, indeed, not done yet.
“People said it to try and jab at us,” Ray Allen said. “We heard it when we went on the road. We heard it from our own media at home. But we didn’t worry about it. We were probably guilty of focusing too far in advance as opposed to taking care of the moment.”
Their moment is here now. They suddenly have the homecourt advantage in a series that was supposed to go five games, maybe six if you accounted for their pride, and honestly, they could have left Cleveland up 2-0.
“We’re upset as a group [about losing Game 1],” Glen Davis said. “But we can’t do nothing about it.”
No, they can’t. Their Game 1 loss will linger if they can’t find a way to win three more games in this series, but through two games the Celtics have been the better team.
It remains to be seen if they have the resolve to pull this off. That’s the trade-off from their lethargic regular season. The burden of proof is on them. But they have a chance now, and it’s way more realistic than it was when this series started.
In many ways, actually, the series starts now.
And with that, here’s our three things:
RASHEED DELIVERS, FINALLY
The throng was 20 people deep, and in the cramped confines of the visitors’ locker room, it felt like 200. They were armed with pens, recorders, TV cameras and questions for Rasheed Wallace. The anticipation was palpable.
What would Sheed say? Would he break down his game clinically, which included 17 points and three 3’s? Would he lash out at the press that has written him off and damned him for all the Celtics’ sins? Or would he give us a little “Both teams played hard,” retro Sheed?
He chose none of the options. Instead, Rasheed Wallace dressed slowly and deliberately and then turned to his inquisitors and simply said, “Excuse me,” and walked away.
Really, what difference would it make if he had talked? Others were more than happy to fill in the blanks.
“I thought Rasheed was phenomenal,” Doc Rivers said. “Obviously the 3’s were huge, but his post play was good as well, and I thought defensively he was so much better than he’s been for us. We need that from him and [Glen Davis.]”
“Coach called upon him and he did just that,” Paul Pierce said. “That is the reason we brought him in. He can be the X-factor in this type of series.”
“Rasheed Wallace,” Davis said drawing out each word slowly. “You know, that’s Sheed. He’s that type of player. I always expect Sheed to play. He never wants to sit down. He plays the game like it’s supposed to be played and today was his day.”
It was his day, at least offensively. Defensively he was much more engaged, but there were still moments when the Cavs ran pick and rolls at him and left him grabbing at air, as when LeBron James went by him like he was standing still late in the fourth quarter.
But the Celtics needed all the offense that he had to give, especially late in the first quarter and into the second when they built a 13-point lead despite seven turnovers, mounting foul trouble and generally passive play from their starters.
“The bench I thought saved the game for us in the second quarter,” Rivers said. “We had a lot of fouls. That stretch with Baby and Rasheed on the floor, Tony [Allen] and Marquis [Daniels], we had a rotation that I don’t know if we’ve ever practiced with.”
Rivers had called out his bench after a disastrous Game 1 when he had to ride his starters into the ground. He said he needed more minutes, better defense and some form of offense. He got all three.
“The bench said as a group, we have to do something,” Davis said. “We’re capable enough. We feel like we’re one of the best bench teams in the league and we had to go out there and deliver, and we did that today.”
There was really nothing more that needed to be said.
SECOND HALF RESOLVE
Funny thing about Cleveland. The Cavaliers have shown a maddening tendency to get out to slow starts this season. Flip the team, and the halves, and they’ve faced the same questions that the Celtics have -- namely, why? As with the Celtics, there are really no answers, just generic quotes about focus and the like.
The Cavs started slowly again in Game 2, but the Celtics didn’t do a whole lot to take advantage of it. They had a four-point lead at the half, which felt fairly insignificant.
Then, everything changed. The Celtics started doing all the things they talked about for the last two days. They attacked offensively and swarmed defensively. The calls that they didn’t get in the first half when they committed 16 fouls to the Cavs’ four began to go their way.
Suddenly, it was a rout. The Celtics outscored Cleveland 31-12 in the third quarter and led by as many as 25 points, 91-66.
“We came out at halftime and all we talked about was being aggressive,” Rivers said. “We had a lead, but we remember what happened the last time. All we talked about was attacking and playing. We really wanted to run to start the third quarter. We had fast break opportunities in the second quarter and I thought we started walking the ball up the floor. I kept saying, if everyone needs a blow we’ll give them a blow, but we have to get easy baskets, and we got some.”
Rajon Rondo was in a word, ridiculous. He had 19 assists by the end of the third quarter, which tied a personal career playoff high. He played all 36 minutes through the first three quarters. Then he went to the bench and everything began to stagnate. The Celtics were stuck on 91 and the Cavs chopped the lead down to 10, but that’s where it stayed.
“I don’t think we handled it very well, honestly, but we sustained,” Rivers said. “We got enough stops. We were stuck on 91, it felt like, for an hour. We made some silly fouls in that one stretch. We needed someone to make one shot.”
That someone was Pierce and it helped steady the ship.
“We looked after Game 1, we were doing everything that we wanted to do,” Ray Allen said. “We were sitting here in the same predicament. We kept them from offensively being great. We had to close the game out. That’s one thing we’ve talked about all year is closing out games. When we do that, we’re pretty good.”
It wasn’t as if the Celtics got bad shots at the end of Game 1, they just could have been better. The looks got better in Game 2, the defense got tighter and yes, they closed it out. But they’re not getting ahead of themselves.
“We just take one game at a time,” Garnett said. “We won one and now we’re going back home to the jungle.”
AND NOW, FOR THE FREAKOUT
Emerging from the Cavs locker room, Mike Brown did not look like a happy man. He had just watched his team completely melt down. He had watched his second scoring option, Mo Williams, disappear from yet another playoff game and he had watched his Hall of Fame center make little impact.
When he got to the post-game press conference he was ready to spit fire.
“Guys,” he said. “Tonight was real simple. For 48 minutes we did not play with a sense of urgency. They kicked our behind from the beginning. We have to decide if we are going to take the fight to them and take these games. Ain’t a [expletive] thing is going to be given to us at all in this series. Plain and simple, they kicked our behind. This series is one to one. We are going to see what we’re made of in Game 3.”
The stage set, LeBron James followed several minutes later and was the picture of complete calm, which separated him not only from his coach, but also the majority of the Cleveland media.
Question: Are you embarrassed by your team’s play?
“I wouldn’t go that far. Those are pretty harsh words. I know we didn’t play well.”
Question: As the two-time MVP can they hold you down for two straight games?
“The MVP thing has nothing to do with it. They did a great job of shrinking the floor. They also did a great job of not leaving my point guard so he couldn’t go off.”
Question: Are you feeling the pressure from the Cleveland fans?
“No. There’s no panic button at this point. For me to come up here and hang my head makes no sense. It’s just two games. The series is tied 1-1.”
As much as the Celtics wanted to win both games here, this is pretty much their dream scenario. With three days between games they may lose some momentum, but that’s also three days for their opponents to field questions about whether Williams shrinks from the moment in the playoffs, whether Shaq is a help or a hindrance and whether there’s anything to the Cleveland curse. (Yes, really.)
This isn’t just make or break for the Cavs, this season is everything. They added every conceivable piece to the puzzle to try to make sure the last season of James’ contract ended in a championship. No one really knows what he will do once this run is over, but the Cavs are taking no chances. Not winning is simply not an option.
As the Celtics made their move, and the Cavs had no answer, there was a palpable sense of dread in the arena. By the end, the packed house was as empty as the streets in this city on a Sunday.
Boston fans are familiar with this sort of thing, and the more sensible ones focused on the tangible elements at play, rather than the mystical mumbo jumbo. But no one could deny that is was there, even if it was a media-driven creation.
The Cavs are going to have to deal with this now. James, for one, seems eminently capable of handling it, even if he was once again tentative, for lack of a better word.
How the rest of them deal with it may play a role in this series. This is the first true test that they have faced this season and if they were expecting it to come in the next round against Orlando, they were mistaken.
Game 3 is Friday. It will feel like an eternity before we get there, but when it does resume, this series will really get started.