It was over when it started. The Cavaliers scored the first six points and never trailed in handing the Celtics the worst home playoff loss in their proud franchise history, 124-95 Friday night at the Garden.
Cavs coach Mike Brown challenged his team after Game 2 to show what they were all about and now it’s the Celtics turn. They were embarrassed and humiliated in their own gym and beaten in every phase of the game.
“There’s nothing that I can look at or take from it,” Ray Allen said. “Obviously I can take the lack of aggression that we had on display tonight. I can take that and say Sunday, ‘We’ve got to be the bulldozer.’”
Game 4 is now about as close to a must-win as you can have when not facing elimination. All the good feeling that the Celtics generated from their Game 2 performance is out the window now, as is any confidence they gained from their Game 1 loss.
The reality is that they are down 2-1 and they have handed homecourt back to the Cavs with a regrettable display of defensive ineptitude. Offensively, they were wretched in the first quarter when the Cavs blitzed them 36-17, but a team like the Celtics is supposed to be able to weather poor stretches of offense.
“It wasn’t our offense, no offense,” Doc Rivers said. “They shot 62 percent in the first half, so offensively I’m not that concerned. It’s tough to run when you’re taking the ball out of bounds every single time.”
LeBron James outscored the Celtics all by himself in the first quarter, scoring 21 of his 38 points, but the Cavs had far more than James at their disposal. All the Celtics keys to winning games, and there are a lot of them, came up short.
They were pounded on the boards. They didn’t win any of their individual matchups. The bench was outplayed and most importantly, they allowed Cleveland to shoot 60 percent for the game. “Defensively,” Rivers said. “We were horrible.”
The Celtics have a lot of issues to address before Sunday’s game. Here are three of them:
ANTHONY PARKER CALLS THE ADJUSTMENT ON RAJON RONDO
For three days, pundits everywhere were calling for Brown to put James on Rajon Rondo. It was, and is, the trump card that he has at his disposal, but Brown has resisted the urge. Putting James on Rondo would alter the entire fabric of the Cavs defense and as long as he doesn’t have to go that route, the happier he will be.
Instead it was Anthony Parker who made the call to pick up Rondo full court.
“Obviously he was picking us apart and it was something AP suggested,” Brown said. “AP said I’m going to pick him up, work the ball some and see what happens. I said great.”
It had the desired effect. With Parker picking up Rondo, it took the Celtics far too long to get into their offense, and when they did, they were forced to rely on awkward one-on-one plays that run counter to the nature of their offense.
Additionally, the Cavs made Rondo become more of a perimeter scorer and while his stat line was solid – 18 points and eight assists – Rondo resembled little of the attacking dervish that killed the Cavs in Cleveland. When Parker was out, Jamario Moon, another long defender, took his place.
The Celtics picked up their offensive play after the first quarter in which they shot 6-for-22, but by that point it was already too late.
“We can live with the Anthony Parker on Rondo matchup like we did in Game 2, and we’re fine with that,” Rivers said.
So now Rondo has another challenge to face down. One would think that having Parker try to keep up with him for 94 feet could backfire, but Rondo was never able to take advantage.
Rondo slipped out of the Celtics locker room without talking to the press and in that he was not alone. Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis both declined to talk and Kevin Garnett skipped the postgame press conference after James beat him to the podium.
Whatever. They got beat and they know it. Anything they would have had to say matters very little now. The question is: What are they going to do about it?
PAUL PIERCE HAS TO PLAY BETTER
The Celtics can live with Paul Pierce getting beat by James in his individual matchup. Even for a proud, accomplished veteran like Pierce it’s to be expected at this point in their careers.
But the Celtics can’t live with what happened in Game 3 when James dominated him. Pierce shot 4-for-15 from the floor, 1-for-5 from 3-point range and never got into a flow offensively. James, on the other hand, got whatever he wanted.
“He’s got to get more involved,” Rivers said. “Defensively, as a group we have to help him some and then he’s got to get into LeBron more. So it’s a combination.”
The Cavs are not doing anything special to defend Pierce. In fact he might be fourth on their list of concerns after Rondo, Garnett and Allen, and that’s a big concern.
The Cavs said all the right things about Pierce being an All-Star and how they’re just trying to contain him, but really the assignment is all James and he’s having his way with him.
By keeping James on Pierce, and effectively controlling him, the Cavs obviously don’t have to make the Rondo switch, but right now that has more to do with Rondo than it does with Pierce.
“I could have scored 30 tonight and we probably would have lost the game the way we played defensively,” Pierce said. “So, you know the focus is not on me to score 20, 30 points. Obviously I’ve got to shoot the ball a lot better.”
Pierce is right, but he’s also wrong. The Celtics showed in the first two games of this series that they can win when he’s not at his best. But they are going to need at least one vintage Pierce performance in this series if they are going to win.
As for James and the elbow?
“I think he’s healthy,” Rivers said. “His elbow held up very good tonight. So, enough with the elbow injury, all right? I think he’s healthy now and now we can go ahead and just focus on basketball. He was great. You knew it though. You knew he was going to grab the ball and attack all game. We didn’t give him any resistance. He was playing HORSE.”
THE C’S LOST THIS ONE UP FRONT
Of all the individual and team battles in this series, the one that seems to always tell the difference is the one in the frontcourt, at the four and five positions.
Early foul trouble knocked Kendrick Perkins and Garnett out of the game in the first quarter and the Celtics were never able to recover. They were beaten badly on the offensive glass and Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal had his best games of the series.
Jamison scored 20 points to go with 12 rebounds, which gave James the second scorer that he needs and Shaq was effective with 12 points and nine rebounds in just 22 minutes. Garnett proved again that he can exploit his matchup with Jamison as he shot 8-for-11, but he had only two shots in the first quarter while the Cavs were piling it on.
“We didn’t go to Kevin enough,” Rivers said. “We have to make a concerted effort to go to Kevin and we didn’t do that.”
Garnett on the post is the one constant the Celtics have at their disposal whenever they want it. No matter what tricked-up defense they throw at Rondo. No matter how much Pierce struggles and no matter. It’s there every game. They just have to trust it.
“They attacked. We settled,” Kendrick Perkins said. “We have to do a better job of establishing Kevin in the post.”
Honestly, there’s not much mystery for the Celtics. They got beat because they didn’t defend and they didn’t respond at all to Cleveland’s attack. There isn’t any adjustment that has to be made, at least not strategically.
Game 3 was Cleveland’s make or break game. Game 4 is all on the Celtics.