If this game was any indication of how the rest of this series is going to be, we all might have just entered the Country of the Classic.
In a game which morphed from a dominant Celtics lead over a lethargic and cold-shooting Cavaliers team into a furious Cleveland comeback, led by a quartet of unlikely suspects and punctuated by LeBron James returning to form late, the Cavaliers grabbed the early lead in this Eastern Conference semi-final with a 101-93 victory at the rabid Q.
It was quite evident early that LeBron was a little worried about his bruised and strained right elbow, especially when he went in for an uncontested dunk and gingerly two-handed it, instead of a windmill dunk such as he so often uses. That sort of play seemed to translate to the entire team, and Boston grabbed a 26-20 lead after the opening period behind 52% shooting, while the Cavaliers struggled at 30%. Rajon Rondo set the bar high in the first twelve minutes with 9 points and five assists, while Paul Pierce pitched in with 8, and Kevin Garnett cleaned up the boards with 6 rebounds. James led the Cavaliers with 7, but if there is such a thing as a quiet seven, this was it.
The second quarter did not go much better for Cleveland, and by the half Boston had almost doubled their advantage, leading at the break 54-43. The eleven-point lead matched the largest of the first half, with a Kendrick Perkins tip-in at the buzzer sending the Celtics confidently to the locker room .
At the half, Boston led in all offensive statistics except for three-pointers, and even there the Celtics had matched the Cavaliers with one successful shot from long range. The three-point shooting that had helped to propel the Cavs past Chicago was non-existent, and the inside game was struggling mightily, as Shaquille O'Neal (who ended up being unlikely suspect # 4) was being hounded by Perkins and had one point at the intermission, as well as being saddled with three fouls a minute into the second. If it had not been for unlikely suspect # 1, Delonte West, going off on a personal 6-0 run early in the second, and unlikely suspect # 2, J.J. Hickson, chipping in with seven in the quarter, this game could very well have been almost over at the 24-minute mark.
In the third quarter, the Cavaliers quickly got back into the game, as Shaq scored four straight to get Cleveland within six, but the Celtics stood their ground and still led, 69-58, when unlikely suspect # 3, Mo Williams, ignited the comeback which turned the game around. After Pierce gave Boston its eleven-point lead, Mo dunked over him, and quickly scored 8 points, sandwiched around a basket from Garnett, and the Cavs were within five. Once more the Celtics pushed the lead to seven, but then Rondo went to the bench with his fourth foul, and Cleveland edged closer and closer, finally taking its first lead since 7-6 on a LeBron James bucket as the third quarter expired, giving the Cavs a 79-78 lead going into the final twelve minutes.
Boston immediately regained the lead as the final quarter began on three points from Glen Davis, but then a basket from Hickson, two Williams free-throws and another basket from LeBron, and the Cavs had their largest lead of the game at 85-81.
The Celtics would not go away, and two straight Perkins hoops tied the game at 90 with around five minutes left. The Cavaliers then went on their final spurt.
Shaq gave Cleveland the lead for good with a tough tip-in, and then James followed a Rondo free throw with a follow-up of his own miss and it was 94-91. After a time-out, Garnett answered to again cut it to one, but a basket from LeBron and a tip from O'Neal made it a five-point game with 1:02 to go.
Then followed a sequence which rather baffled me: Cleveland gained possession, still with a 5-point lead, with about 42 seconds left, and rather than foul, the Celtics let the Cavs work the clock down to 22 seconds before LeBron drilled the dagger three to put the game out of reach and to end the scoring. I am no coach and maybe Doc Rivers was hoping for a Cleveland miss and a quick three and then to foul, but as the seconds ticked off, the tension of wondering whether the Cavs could hang on melted away.
I used the term "unlikely suspects" for four Cavaliers based on a poll of Boston fans today of one player besides LeBron who would worry them, and I do believe that none of the four I mentioned led that list. Frankly, I was a little stunned by a couple of them myself. So thanks, Delonte, and thanks, J.J.
LeBron James led Cleveland with 35 and seemed to grow more confident and more himself as the game progressed and his elbow loosened up. Williams added 20, Shaq finished with eleven, ten in the second half, and Hickson also had 11.
Boston was led by the magnificent Rajon Rondo, with 27 points on seven of ten shooting from the field and 12 of 14 at the line, to go with six rebounds and 12 assists. Four Celtics finished in double figures, and the battle of the boards ended in a dead heat.
It may be overlooked, but the Cavs' bench outscored Boston's, 26-12. In an eight-point victory, such an edge from the reserves was crucial.
On to Game Two we go.. After this relaxing little contest tonight, I expect nothing less on Monday.