LeBron James Leads Cavs Over Celtics
Although Cleveland's roster has seen a dramatic makeover, and although Boston is far less daunting, the rematch of the epic 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals started off with something real familiar: LeBron James going nuts. For the fifth time this season, LeBron dropped at least 30 points on the Celtics, going for 35 in Game 1 as Cleveland won 101-93.
LeBron didn't actually start off so hot, and it's unlikely his famously sore elbow had much to do with it. James began the game 1-of-5 from the floor as Cleveland struggled to produce on offense. Boston, led by a surging Rajon Rondo, kept a multi-possession lead most of the first half. Rondo had no trouble zipping by Mo Williams, and only slightly less trouble when Anthony Parker, a 2009 addition to the Cavs, marked him. As the Celtics took an 11-point lead into halftime, Rondo had owned the game with a brilliant 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting (with 6-of-6 at the stripe) and eight assists. Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett looked semi-vintage, handling himself proudly on defense while scoring on some deft Rondo passes.
Sparked by what is being billed as the first career dunk for diminutive Cleveland guard Mo Williams, the Cavaliers came back strong late in the third quarter. Williams' jam, a soaring transition pop over the outstretched of a chasing Pierce, drew a fantastic crowd boom and a chorus of home bench stinkfaces. Williams glared at Pierce after the jam, milking the moment before scoring the Cavs' next eight points to cut Boston's lead to five. Including Mo's run, the Cavs scored on 11 consecutive possessions to close the period, taking a 1-point lead into the fourth, capped with a buzzer-beating LeBron layup.
The fourth remained tight throughout, with James out-dueling rival Paul Pierce late. LeBron delivered a running jumper with just under two minutes, giving Cleveland a 96-93 lead. Pierce missed two attempts at the other end, and the Celtics wouldn't get a good shot off the rest of the way. James ended up scoring 12 points in the fourth. Pierce scored three despite taking six shots.
Shaquille O'Neal had massive trouble all over the court, proving mostly ineffective against Kendrick Perkins' active defense and either clueless or immobile on defense. Shaq's backstop defense on Boston's slashers (Rondo, primarily) was simply nonexistent, save for a hard foul on Rondo midway through the fourth. Although Shaq scored 11, every possession run through him seemed wasted, or at least misguided.
With James, Williams and Jamison typically on the court with O'Neal, why even bother? At some point in the series Shaq's artful but slow-mo post play might come in handy. Like, when LeBron loses his legs in a freak carp shoot accident. Not a minute sooner. The best thing for Mike Brown's rotations in Game 1 was Shaq's foul problems. That's not a good sign going forward, unless you think Brown is going to suddenly see the light he ignored most of the fourth quarter.
Shaq's only successful moment in crunch time? On a weird James-O'Neal pick and roll near the free throw line, Shaq took the pass and bricked an open lay-up off the window. He collected the carom off the rim (an uncontested offensive rebound) and put it back up. It rolled off, but Shaq managed to bat the ball through the rim. Success! The Cavs take a 5-point lead at 98-93 with a minute left. The Q explodes, Shaq is a hero ... as if the previous 47 minutes hadn't just happened.
We'll see if Brown adjusts his rotation -- to be honest, J.J. Hickson's rebounding and defense off the bench, relieving it may have seemed -- was nothing special. We'll also wait to see how the Cavs deal with Rondo, who finished with 27/12. But in the end, so long as LeBron is playing this well and Pierce can't keep up, so long as Williams can at least cut the gap between his performance and that of Rondo, so long as Ray Allen (6-14) isn't sharp and Kevin Garnett needs a lot of shots (20) to get big output (18), Cleveland looks like a result different from Boston's 2008 win is in reach.