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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Celtics Withstand Big First Half by LeBron James, Take 3-2 Series Lead

The Boston Celtics survived a 35 point performance by LeBron James to post a 96-89 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers and move within one win of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. Kevin Garnett had his best all-around game of the series (26 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, two steals, zero turnovers and 12-19 shooting from the field), while Paul Pierce scored 29 points (his single game high in this year's playoffs) and Rajon Rondo had a Chris Paul-like line of 20 points, 13 assists, 9-15 field goal shooting and just one turnover. Perhaps Rondo and not Ray Allen should be considered the third member of the "Big Three"; Allen had a quiet 11 points on 4-11 field goal shooting--just a few months ago he almost won the All-Star Game MVP but against Cleveland he is averaging just 10.4 ppg on .340 field goal shooting, including a wretched .211 from three point range. Speaking of shooting woes, James' shooting percentage for the series has finally broken the .300 mark (.311) after his 12-25 effort in game five. James scored 23 points on 8-14 shooting in the first half but if you do the quick math you realize that means he only had 12 points on 4-11 shooting in the second half. The Cavs won two games in Cleveland with James shooting poorly but having excellent all around numbers but in game five he had series-low totals in assists (five) and rebounds (three). Delonte West (21 points) and Wally Szczerbiak (10 points) were the only other Cavs who scored in double figures. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has shot better than .500 from the field in this postseason, inexplicably had just five field goal attempts and consequently finished with just six points.

After five games of trench warfare, these two teams are so locked in defensively that the soundtrack to this series could be crickets chirping as players futilely try to free themselves for open shots. Boston missed its first two shots of the game, got offensive rebounds on both occasions but then committed a 24 second shot clock violation. The Cavaliers trudged downcourt and promptly committed a shot clock violation as well. It looked like one of those late night games at the playground when it gets too dark, no one can see the hoop and someone says, "Next basket wins"--or, in this case, "First basket wins." The scoring drought was broken by, of all things, a jumper by James, whose successful attempts from outside of the paint prior to game five were few and far between. TNT's Mike Fratello termed this an "Uh, oh shot" for the Celtics, as in "Uh, oh, if James starts making those we are in big trouble." In fact, the Cavs built an 18-9 first quarter lead with James scoring most of the points but the Celtics closed the gap to 23-18 by the end of the quarter.

James scored eight straight points as the Cavs pushed their lead to 43-29 and it looked like he might be putting together a performance to rival his epic game five torching of Detroit in last year's Eastern Conference Finals--but then the Cavs' offense sputtered to a halt and the Celtics ran off 10 points in a row to get right back into the game. That was probably the decisive stretch in the game--and perhaps in the series--because if Cleveland had built a 15 or 20 point lead going into halftime I think that the Celtics would have been in big trouble, because they have one or two guys who try to do everything by themselves when things go badly and one or two guys who disappear offensively in such situations. Instead, the Celtics trimmed the margin to 46-43 by halftime.

Cleveland began the second half by committing turnovers on three straight possessions and the Celtics moved ahead, 47-43. The Cavs briefly regained the lead a couple times before a 22-8 run put Boston on top 71-59 with 1:03 remaining in the third quarter. James then made a jumper--his first and only two points of the quarter--and assisted on a Joe Smith jumper to bring the Cavs to within 72-63 going into the fourth quarter. The Celtics led the rest of the way, though they committed two turnovers in the last two minutes that kept things interesting. Pierce shot 5-6 from the free throw line in the final :15 to seal the deal.

Cleveland's three keys to victory, as I have said many times, are defense, rebounding and James' brilliance. Boston shot 37-77 from the field (.481) while Cleveland shot 29-65 (.446), so the Celtics clearly won that category; Boston also outrebounded Cleveland 38-30. As for James, he had a big scoring first half before struggling again with his shot in the second half and his floor game did not measure up to his usually high standards. Cleveland's shot distribution was poor--West was the only player other than James to attempt at least 10 shots--and James settled too often for long jumpers and three pointers (he was 0-5 from long distance).

If the Cavs gained any momentum from their rousing game four victory then it only lasted for the first half of game five, so there is likewise no reason to believe that there will be much of a carryover effect from this game going into game six; expect that contest to be another hard fought defensive struggle, expect James to miss perimeter shots but play a good floor game, expect most of the Celtics to disappear on offense in the fourth quarter except for Pierce--who will force matters--and expect Cleveland to prevail to force a seventh game back in Boston on Sunday, which the Celtics will almost certainly win.

Other than James' record setting--and not in a good way--field goal percentage, this series has followed the script that I predicted it would when I said that Cleveland's best shot to win in Boston would come in game one and that if the Cavs lost that game then the Celtics would eliminate them in seven. Nevertheless, it still would be interesting to see the Celtics pushed to the brink for the second series in a row and there is always the chance that James could do something remarkable in that circumstance. It certainly would be anticlimactic for the Celtics to close out the series in Cleveland on Friday, because any true basketball fan outside of Boston surely would like to see James battle the "Big Three" in a seventh game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 AM

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