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This one was over before the chalk had settled from Lebron’s pre-game ritual. This one was a game where the Celtics were out-hustled, out-muscled, out-willed and out-classed on their home parquet that lead to the team’s worst home playoff loss in franchise history. This one was a result that will almost certainly lead to many disillusioned and dispirited Celtics fans exclaiming: “I knew Lebron was faking it!”
And while the story will likely revolve mostly around James (and rightfully so; we’ll get back to him) and his “strained” elbow, after the Cleveland Cavaliers embarrassed the Boston Celtics at TD Garden Friday night by the final cringe-inducing score of 124-95, it was more than evident that Lebron’s mates were also up to the task of re-gaining home court advantage and carrying the Cavs to a 2-1 series lead. And to say they just “re-gained” the advantage in this series is an injustice. They completely tore it back from the Celtics in a matter of minutes into this game. Six minutes to be exact. At that point the “James Gang” had gone up by double digits, and they never looked back. This one was a total dismantling, leaving the Green reeling heading into Sunday’s game four.
From the opening tip you could plainly see that Cleveland and Lebron James would do what they had to do to impose their will on Boston. Early in the game there was a stretch of four straight turnovers, but you can attribute that to the jitters of engaging in what LBJ called “the most important game of our season” in a hostile environment. Those jitters subsided quickly. Lebron went on his own personal 8-0 run, and once the Cavaliers had attained a double-digit lead, they did not give it back. This was a team that shot almost 60% for the game. All five of their starters finished in double-figures, including Antawn Jamison spotting up 20 points and 12 rebounds, in a series where his “deer in the headlights” look had been more talked-about than his contributions playing opposite Kevin Garnett.
But the big story was to be expected. The long lay-off between games was already brutal enough, but this one was constantly littered with talk of that right elbow of Lebron James. In game 2 the Celtics held James to 24 points (10 from the charity stripe), and he seemed timid and out-of-sync at times, which lead to questions about the Cavaliers’ chances in this series, and even more questions about that pesky, tweeting right elbow of his. So there was no question that “The King” would come out aggressive and energized, looking to jump on the Celtics on their home court. He did just that. After the first quarter, Cleveland had a 36-17 lead, and Lebron had 21 of those points. Overall he finished with 38 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, further proving that the MVP and “best player” argument are over for now and the considerable future. It’s games like these that show his undoubted ability to carry his team while still making them direct beneficiaries of his other-worldly talents, and it’s games like these that will grow his legend into “His Airness 2.0” status. Provided the fruits of his labor produce a title. But will it be in Cleveland?
It was a putrid first quarter that slayed them. The Celtics shot a couple of ticks over 40% for the game, going 4-17 from three-point range, and succumbing to a more-than-inspired Cleveland defense that rendered them all but futile. They did not get out-scored by more than 4 points in the second, third, and fourth quarters, but the extremely slow start in the first, the odd strategy of funneling the offense through Rajon Rondo’s outside jump shots, and the continued struggles of Paul Pierce was what killed them. Pierce was 4-15 from the field, 1-5 on three-pointers, and 2-5 from the free-throw line, finishing with just 11 points. In the end it was only Rondo and Garnett that proved consistent on offense, a formula that will not win many games against Cleveland.
After holding Boston to a 17 point first quarter, the Cavs did well to stifle the Celts and keep them from going on any significant runs. The aforementioned stalling of the Boston offense to where they would awkwardly stand and watch as Rajon Rondo took tough jump shots for his range (0 for 3 from behind the arc), marked the beginning of the end of this game. While Rondo and Garnett did all they could, the Cavaliers held Boston to a 4-17 mark from three-point range, which certainly contributed to a big edge in defensive rebounding, 34-16. Yet another indication of how this game was all Cleveland once the first quarter shift happened.
Can you really hold Lebron’s line against them? Could any of the Celtics players really have done much to hold him back this game? The answer to both is no. While at times, it got to a point of sheer curiosity as to why the Celtics continued to let the ball get into James’ hands and roll under the screens set for him, it also got to a point where the game was in hand and his foot would ease off the throttle. If it had come to it, this would have been a night where 50 points would have been well within his reach. All five of the Celtics starters were on the wrong side of the plus-minus category, ranging from -19 to -28. And call Shaquille O’Neal what you want, but besides his 12 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes, he made the most of those minutes by being a thorough force over Kendrick Perkins when the two were matched up. Perkins finished with zero defensive rebounds. Zero! The Celtics as a team had 16 for the game. Enough said.
It’s safe to say that we can expect much of the same from Lebron James on Sunday. But what can we expect from Paul Pierce? He has yet to find a rhythm offensively in this series, and seems to be in the middle of costly turnovers at times when the Celtics least need them. If the Celts are going to have any chance to tie this series up and make it interesting through six or seven games, then Pierce must be a bigger factor in the offensive flow of this team. Rajon Rondo, while truly exciting to watch and hands-down MVP if they pull out this series, was exposed in game three when he failed to make many open jump shots being given to him by the rotations of Cleveland’s defense. With Garnett’s consistency so far and Ray Allen’s ability to break out with two or three straight baskets from range at any time, the series will hinge on Pierce and whether or not he can come up big like he did against the Cavs two years ago in that epic seven game series, and complete this newly-minted “Big Four” whose window for another championship is rapidly closing.