It seems to be true almost all of the time that when a team spends an extended amount of time and energy coming back from a big deficit, once the comeback is complete, the team that lost the lead regroups immediately and ultimately wins the game. The Cavaliers proved that a few weeks ago in the last regular season game played in Boston between Cleveland and the Celtics, where the Cavs came back from +20 down and took the lead, only to lose.
They proved it again today, and they almost proved it twice.
In a game that gave a new meaning to the term 'maddening', Boston evened the series at 2-2, with a foul-plagued 97-87 victory. Thus this series becomes a best-of-three, and if the Cavaliers do not find a way to slow Rajon Rondo down...fast...a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals for Cleveland is seriously in doubt.
And it wouldn't hurt to have more than one good game in a row offensively. The effort today was...yes, maddening.
Here is a number for you: 79. As in free throw attempts. NFL games frequently finish more quickly than this nearly-three-hour affair.
And here is another number: 17. As in Cavaliers turnovers, many of them on cross-court passes to unsuspecting recipients.
But the numbers which mattered most were these three: 29, 18, and 13. As in Rajon Rondo points, rebounds, and assists. Eighteen rebounds...for a guard.
Cleveland came out and for a while it looked very much like a repeat of Friday night's game, right down to the badly missed opening shot from Shaq. Undeterred, the Cavs jumped up 7-0 and Doc Rivers was forced to call a timeout less than three minutes into the game. That woke the Celtics up, but even so, an Anthony Parker three and Cleveland led 12-5. From there, Boston ran off nine straight points to take their first lead since Monday night, and after a brief tie, Rondo's hoop game Boston an 18-16 advantage. The Celtics never trailed again until late in the third quarter.
By the time quarter one ended the Cavs were down by nine at 31-22, and only four Cavaliers had scored, led by LeBron James, with eight. Parker and Shaq had five, including three free throws from O'Neal, who is quietly doing pretty well from the line in these playoffs, although later in the game he did miss two in one trip to the line.
For the Celtics, Rondo already had 11 points, five rebounds and 3 assists, and unlike Game Three, Boston was getting penetration at will, either driving and being fouled or dishing outside and hitting overall at a 55% clip.
The second quarter became a case of creep-close, slip-further-behind. In fact, with LeBron on the bench at the start of the quarter, Cleveland cut the lead to 34-31, only to see Boston extend the lead to ten at 44-34, and status quo for the rest of the half had Cleveland staring at a 54-45 halftime deficit.
At the break, Boston owned a healthy 24-16 lead in rebounds, and had blocked six shots, to Cleveland's one. Zero points from Cleveland's bench, and with Rondo not far from a triple-double, and it was fortunate that the game was still in reach.
The referees, perhaps expressing their displeasure at having to work on Mother's Day, had already whistled 46 free throws.
In the third quarter a Kevin Garnett basket pushed Boston's lead to 58-47, and then Cleveland began chipping away. A 15-6 run, capped by a James hoop, and the Cavaliers were within two. Boston pushed the lead to four, but the Cavs were not finished. An Anderson Varejao basket tied the game at 67, and after the Celtics regained the lead, Delonte West was fouled on a three, made them all (for his only points of the game), and Cleveland had come all the way back, and led, 70-69.
Boston, not surprisingly, regrouped and ended the quarter with a 5-2 run to regain the lead by two going into the home stretch.
Sloppy passing and ball-handling through three quarters had the Cavs sitting on thirteen turnovers, and three quick turnovers to begin the fourth quarter, and going 4:45 before they scored on a Mo Williams shot following a 12-0 Boston run, and Cleveland looked dead in the water, all their energy spent from the long comeback.
Except the Cavs were not quite dead. They had one more run left in them, and almost made it all the way back from a double-digit deficit again. A Rondo basket made it 86-74, and suddenly Cleveland ran off ten straight, and again was within two.
Then came the sequence which decided the game.
Garnett gathered an offensive rebound which led to a Tony Allen score. After a Varejao free throw, another offensive board for the Celtics and a Paul Pierce score, and the lead was five. Then Ray Allen stole the ball from Mo Williams, and a Rondo hoop, and it was all but over, at 92-85.
A handful of free throws for Boston after desperation misses from the Cavs, and it was lights out in Boston...until Thursday night, when Game Six will be played in this off-the-hook series.
Before then, Game Five will be played in Cleveland on Tuesday night. If Rondo is not somehow slowed, the Cavaliers had better be ready to neutralize most of the rest of the Celtics. And 40% shooting, including 4 of 21 on threes, isn't going to get it...not if we want to get our shot at Orlando.