CLEVELAND – They bailed early on their team Tuesday night in the city of angst. By twos, three and fours the fans in the Quicken Loans Arena headed toward the exits with far more urgency than their Cavaliers attacked the basket.
On the way out, one said to his friend: “You know how I feel? Like God hates me.”
The entire weight of a city’s expectations has come crashing down on LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the aftermath of a 120-88 demolition at the hands of the Celtics (recap) and they are already lining up scapegoats.
Cavs coach Mike Brown for one, who insisted on playing strange, funky lineups that seemed to play right into the Celtics’ hands. Mo Williams, for another, who can’t guard anyone in the Celtics backcourt and hasn’t been much of a scoring threat, save for a Game 1 outburst.
The Celtics, well, the Celtics couldn’t care less. They were a team without pity for 48 minutes Tuesday and now they have to be a team with a short memory.
“Once tomorrow starts you got to get all those warm fuzzy feelings out of your stomach,” Ray Allen said. “We have to put that same effort out there. It’s not going to happen just by itself. We have to force the issue. It’s great after the fact to talk about how we got two games where we played really well. It’s like fool’s gold. You got to go into it tomorrow, you have to be paranoid.”
This series has been enough to make anyone paranoid, and not just the Clevelanders who seemed resigned to the reality that James might actually leave without a championship next to his name.
It was only five days ago that the Cavs administered the worst beating to a Celtics team in their building ever in a playoff game. On Tuesday, it was the Celtics’ turn and now they have a 3-2 lead and a chance to close out the best-of-seven series at home on Thursday.
Regardless of how this turns out, and it would be foolish to think that this is over yet, the Celtics have proven something in these playoffs. They have proven that they were better than the team that sleepwalked through the regular season and lost games to the likes of the Nets and Wizards. They have proven that they are still very dangerous.
But now the stakes have been raised. The entire basketball world will be watching Thursday night in the Garden (along with the entire New York press corps ready to extend an invitation to James if the Cavs lose).
The expectation is that they will be witnessing a funeral for James and the Cavaliers, but they also might be seeing the resurrection of the Celtics.
THE BIG THREE HAVE SOMETHING LEFT AFTER ALL
Paul Pierce came out ready to attack. Kevin Garnett dominated in the post. Ray Allen knocked down 3’s, including two that might have been the biggest plays of the night.
They scored 39 of the Celtics’ 50 points in the first half while Rajon Rondo was held to no points and one solitary assist, and they finished with 64 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists. Not bad for complementary pieces.
“They’re pretty good,” Doc Rivers said. “We’re not going to stop [going to them]. You could feel Paul’s intensity. He got his rhythm back. You can feel it and it was great. Not only for him, I think it’s great for our guys to see. It’s a Game 5 situation where it’s 2-2 and you can feel that your top scorer is here. I think that lifted everybody.”
Pierce didn’t have a quote-unquote vintage Paul Pierce game, but he had a really good one. He not only scored 21 points, he also had 11 rebounds and rebounding is vital to the Celtics’ chances. He also played a very large part in holding LeBron to a 3-for-14 shooting performance, although Pierce was quick to defer to his teammates on that count.
“He’s the toughest guy in the league to guard one-on-one, so I give credit to my teammates for stepping up, corralling him, being in the right spots,” Pierce said. “I just followed the gameplan. We were going to send him to the help, try to contain him as much as possible.”
(It’s also a good time to give assistant coach Tom Thibodeau some much-deserved props for said gameplan.)
But the focus has been on Pierce and his scoring, or lack thereof, and the Celtics made a concerted effort to get him the ball closer to the basket and on the move, instead of flat-footed at the top of the key where James could force him into awkward jump shots.
“Coach kept telling me to be more aggressive, especially off the pick and rolls in transition and rebound the ball better,” Pierce said. “At the same time, do it within the flow of the offense. At the end of the day, I don’t really put pressure on myself to go out there and try to score. We have so many players that can step in. Today they needed it, and I brought it.”
Garnett also brought it. His play has been largely overlooked throughout this series, but he has been almost automatic on the post against Antawn Jamison, which has given the Celtics a go-to option in the halfcourt.
“That’s the beauty of our team,” Pierce said. “That’s what makes us so dangerous. You look at Cleveland you know you have to stop LeBron. With us, any number of guys can lead us in scoring. From me, Rondo, Ray, KG; Sheed Wallace is capable. You never know where it’s going to come from.”
The Cavs certainly didn’t have any idea where it was going to come from either, especially in the second quarter when Rivers subbed out Rondo and the Celtics turned an eight-point deficit into an eight-point lead.
“Rondo was tired,” Rivers said. “You could see it. For whatever reason he got tired early. Then, honestly, you sub by the score. I kept looking at the clock and the score.”
Then there was Allen who led everyone in scoring with 25 points and who drained six of his nine 3-pointers. On the first two possessions of the second half, he hit two 3’s over Mo Williams and that brought Rondo back into play.
For the last 48 hours, it has been impossible to ignore Rajon Rondo. The ESPN crawl noted that LeBron and the Cavs were getting ready to play Rajon Rondo and the Celtics, which is as symbolic as any of the ubiquitous ‘Passing of the Torch’ stories that have been making the rounds.
Before the game Rivers had a good line about that, saying, “That’s for y’all. I’m just trying to get them to pass the ball to each other. That torch stuff, I’m going to leave that alone. As long as they keep passing to each other, I’m good.”
Allen put it in starker terms: “It doesn’t matter to us,” he said. “At the end of the day everyone gets credit for it when you win.”
It’s not a news flash that Rondo is good. He was an All-Star this season. He should have been one last season, but he got passed over for, um, Mo Williams. He was the Celtics’ best, most consistent player all year, and he has been phenomenal in the playoffs, especially in this series, where he has been better than the league’s MVP.
For as much as the Celtics' fortunes rise and fall with his play, and he is vital, it never hurts to get some help from your teammates and after Allen knocked down his 3’s, Mike Brown had a decision to make.
He could leave Williams on Allen, who was raining jumpers on his head, or he could switch Anthony Parker to Allen and take his chances with Williams on Rondo. It was a lose-lose proposition.
The moment Williams switched over, Rondo attacked. Viciously.
“We have a great rhythm all together,” Allen said. “In the third quarter Rondo started attacking when they switched and put Anthony Parker on me. Rondo just went to work. They were trying to go back and forth, trying to figure out what they needed to do.”
Things got so bad that Brown called a timeout just to get Williams out of the game. He replaced him with Daniel Gibson. It felt like a panic move, and it was. Gibson fell out of the rotation and played just 16 minutes from March 16 until the end of the regular season.
Once Rondo was finished with Williams he went to work on Gibson and by the end of the game he had a very Rondo-like 16 points and seven assists, which were 16 and six more than he had in the first half.
Maybe we have seen the passing of the torch from the veterans to Rondo. Maybe we won’t see it until they’re gone and he’s the undisputed leader of everything. What we have definitely seen is a player comfortable with his responsibilities and the spotlight that comes with it.
“I was concerned with that,” Rivers said. “He is so young and I couldn’t turn the TV on or read the paper. It was Rondo this, Rondo that. I was like, ‘Please just be quiet, people. Stop it.’ Because it’s tough. When you’re young, that’s a lot of attention, but I thought he handled it perfectly.”
In the end, the anticipated LeBron-Rondo matchup rarely materialized and it’s not likely to be much of a factor even if it does (see the aforementioned other headaches such a move would bring). Rondo is beyond all that anyway and that’s called maturity.
It is now mid-May and we are finally seeing that vaunted Celtics defense again. They held the Cavs to 41 percent shooting, 33 percent from beyond the arc, and when the Cavs did miss, they didn’t get many chances to follow.
Once again the Celtics clamped down on the boards and held the Cavs to just seven second-chance points. It’s the single biggest stat in the series. When they hold Cleveland to less than 10 points off misses, they win.
“Throughout the playoffs, this is the defense we’ve been talking about all year long,” Pierce said. “We try to limit our opponent’s field goal percentage. Get into them and rebound the ball. We know if we play defense and rebound, we’re a tough team to beat.”
Much of the credit will go to Pierce for the way he defended James, holding him to 3-for-14 shooting, and he was very good at denying him the ball and not letting him get it on the move. But Pierce also rightly deflected some of the kudos back to his teammates who were sitting in the paint, waiting to pounce.
James rarely tried to test them and once again there were questions about his elbow and his aggressiveness.
“Their defense has a little bit to do with it because they were very aggressive,” James said. “I just missed a lot of shots. I missed a lot of open shots, shots I’m capable of making. You don’t see it out of me a lot, so when it happens it’s a big surprise. I will look at the film but they played me the same way they have played me all series.”
Allowing for the possibility of a subtle tweak here, or a small adjustment there, James is probably right that the Celtics didn’t change up on him, but he’s wrong that he simply missed shots.
The Celtics had him back on his heels, falling away from the basket on long jump shots. This is what they want him to do and it’s on him to try to counter. Whether the Celtics forced James into their game or he played the role of willing accomplice, it was a disastrous performance for the two-time MVP.
It’s not like he had a lot of help either, aside from Shaquille O’Neal, who feasted on weak-side dunks against the Celtics’ over-playing defense. That’s one of the trade-offs for playing the way they do, but they’ll gladly take Shaq’s night when Jamison and Williams shoot 7-for-18 and score 18 points.
The Celtics were asked about the Cavs’ stunning ineptitude and they simply shrugged it off. “I was focused more on our triumphs,” Allen said.
This is how they play, or at least this is how they used to play and how they talked about playing during the regular season when their play was anything but this. They have rediscovered their formula. Play defense, rebound and get Rondo out in transition, and it has come at just the right time.
But they’re not done yet.
“We’re not celebrating,” Allen said. “Because we haven’t won anything.”