Everything was going so well for Boston. Shaq missing chippies. Rajon Rondo dominating. Kendrick Perkins protecting inside. Kevin Garnett playing as well as he has this season. A lead, in Cleveland, and just a quarter and a half to close. Plus, LeBron’s elbow was making him timid.
Following a Mo Williams posterization of Paul Pierce in the third quarter, the Celtics were never the same. The Cavs went on to outscore 58-39 in the second half and win Game 1 in Cleveland 101-93 to take a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And with the game hanging in the balance, LeBron James did what makes him LeBron James, and the MVP. Whether you believe he was injured or not, and some people in Boston do not think so, James’ performance down the stretch was sublime.
James drove inside past multiple defenders, forced the issue, and when the call didn’t come, collected his own offensive rebound and scored the putback. James followed it up with a dagger pull-up three that ended any doubt of the outcome. James didn’t settle for a pull-up crossover mid-range jumper when he needed to drive, and with the surge of momentum, he buried the Celtics in a game they are going to wonder how they managed to drop it. This after a first half in which he took only two jump shots and seemed considerably intimidated by the bruised and strained elbow he’s currently dealing with, and which he had wrapped in a more heavily padded sleeve tonight.
The Celtics played superbly for two and a half quarters, and then following the Mo Williams dunk, everything changed. Williams went nova, nailing threes and jumpers and leaners, playing from mid-range how Rondo had played previously. Rondo, saddled with four fouls, was sent to the bench, and the ensuing lack of focus from the C’s allowed the run to get the Celtics back in the driver’s seat.
Going forward, there are tons of questions on both sides. The Cavs can’t expect to win this series if Rajon Rondo is going to carve them up like he did for most of the game. Rondo was able to get to the basket whenever he wanted, and often he simply drew the defense in and made smart pass after smart pass. 27 points, 12 assists, and 6 rebounds for Rondo, in a loss? That’s crushing. But it also means that the Cavs are going to have to do some serious work on how they’re going to contain him, because winning with Rondo doing that is unlikely again.
They’re also going to have to look at how to better defend Kevin Garnett. Garnett’s 9-20 line could very easily have been 11-20 or better, and he was able to move around Anderson Varejao and over Antawn Jamison. They’ll need to consider a double in certain situations and when it’s an acceptable risk (read: when Ray Allen is not in the game).
For the Celtics? Where to begin?
James… what are you going to do? If he just dropped 35, 7, 7, 3, and 2 with an injured elbow, it may take an act of God to stop him, and at this point, we’re not sure that’ll do the trick. But they can’t allow Mo Williams to take over a game like that. Tony Allen needs more time if Rondo is in foul trouble, but really, Rondo can’t get in foul trouble. The Celtics had this game and they let it get out of hand. They simply ran out of the extra effort down the stretch. For two and a half quarters, they looked like all that old talk was silly. At the end, they looked more like a Weezer than the dudes that sing “Island in the Sun” (hey-hey).
Additionally, Shaquille O’Neal’s putback down low late in the game showed that by resting O’Neal, they were able to wear out the C’s to a point where Shaq’s size made an impact. The Celtics are going to need more from Shelden Williams and Rasheed Wallace to prevent that from happening. And don’t even get us started on Paul Pierce’s defense down the stretch, which allowed the James three among other plays.
So now both teams will make adjustments, James’ elbow will heal a bit more, and the Celtics will try to move on from a huge opportunity that got away.