Celtics Ring in New Season With 90-85 Victory Over CavaliersPaul Pierce scored a game-high 27 points as the Boston Celtics earned a hard fought 90-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on "ring night"--the season opening game before which the Celtics received their 2008 NBA Championship rings. Pierce openly wept when he got his ring and held it over his head as he waved to the cheering Boston fans. Once the game began, though, he had his emotions completely under control and he played very well, looking lighter, faster and bouncier than he did even when he won the Finals MVP. The Celtics are very fortunate that Pierce was the best player on the court, because the other two members of the "Big Three"--Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen--were largely invisible; Garnett finished with 11 points and six rebounds while shooting just 5-15 from the field, while Allen had eight points, four turnovers and just one assist while shooting 2-9 from the field. Rajon Rondo (14 points on 4-5 shooting, six assists, five rebounds, three steals) and Leon Powe (13 points on 5-7 shooting) picked up the slack for the two struggling All-Stars.
LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 22 points and six assists in addition to having seven rebounds and two steals but it was not a great performance for last season's scoring champion; he shot 9-21 from the field--missing most of the shots that he took outside of the paint, including all four of his three point attempts--and 4-8 from the free throw line, including 2-6 in the final 6:44 when the game was up for grabs. He showcased his breathtaking athleticism with several unbelievable dunks but in order to lead the Cavaliers past elite teams he must develop a consistent jump shot and a reliable free throw stroke; it would also be beneficial if he had a game on the post beyond simply overpowering defenders, a game based on footwork, finesse and positioning--you don't have to be big and athletic to be effective on the block, as guys like Gary Payton and Sam Cassell have shown over the years, and if James added those low post skills to his already formidable game it would make him and the Cavs even better.
As usual, the Cavs did a good job on the boards, outrebounding the Celtics 41-36, and the Cavs also played very well defensively, particularly in the first half when they held Boston to 41% field goal shooting (the Celtics shot 44.6% from the field overall). Zydrunas Ilgauskas contributed 15 points and eight rebounds and Anderson Varejao scored nine points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds. In his first regular season game as a Cav, Mo Williams scored 12 points and passed for two assists but he had five fouls and four turnovers.
Season opening games sometimes have an awkward feel to them and that is doubly true of "ring night" games; often the defending champions come out flat, while their opponents are fired up, and a little bit of both of those elements was evident in this game as Cleveland raced to a 14-4 lead. In the early going, the only things clicking for the Celtics were Pierce's offensive game--he had 11 first quarter points--and Kendrick Perkins' energy on the offensive boards. Pierce repeatedly drove by James and/or rotating defenders to get into the lane and either score or draw fouls. The Cavs really had trouble staying in front of him. Eventually the Celtics got some more players involved and by the end of the first quarter Cleveland only led 28-22.
With James out of the game for the first portion of the second quarter, the Cavs actually extended the lead to 41-30 as they continued to play good defense but by halftime the margin was back down to single digits, 50-43. Cleveland led for the entire first half but the tide turned early in the third quarter: Pierce and Allen drilled back to back threes, Perkins made a layup and then a Rondo layup put the Celtics ahead for the first time; Cleveland only scored two points (a Ben Wallace put back dunk) in the first 4:42 of the quarter. The Cavaliers briefly went up by as many as four points in the third quarter but the Celtics held the advantage the majority of the time the rest of the way.
A James alley oop dunk off of a Williams feed pulled the Cavs to within 83-80 with 2:11 remaining in the game but the Cavs squandered several opportunities at both ends of the court in the last couple minutes. After Garnett's jumper put the Celtics up by five, James bricked a three pointer with 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. It is questionable whether the Cavs even needed to take a three pointer at that juncture but James simply has to do one of two things: improve his jumper to the extent that it is a bona fide late game threat or else use his ability to draw defenders to create an opening for one of his better shooting teammates to shoot that shot. James is obviously the best player on his team but that does not mean that he should be the guy shooting late game three point shots.
Garnett split a pair of free throws after Ilgauskas committed a loose ball foul and on the ensuing possession the Cavs ran a much better offensive set: Varejao set a great screen for Williams, who buried a three point shot to cut the lead in half, 86-83.
Varejao made a very good defensive play after the Celtics ran a screen/roll with Pierce and Garnett; James switched on to Garnett, while Varejao forced Pierce to miss a tough fadeaway jumper. James outbattled Garnett for the rebound and the Cavs called timeout with 15.5 seconds left. That sequence demonstrates Cleveland's impressive defensive flexibility, as a backup power forward/center successfully guarded a top flight small forward while a small forward--albeit a "large" small forward--outrebounded one of the league's top rebounding power forwards.
As Mike Fratello correctly noted, the Cavs still did not have to take a three point shot; getting a quick score and then fouling the Celtics is the high percentage play. Obviously, James is the best candidate to try to get a quick score but the problem in such situations--particularly against the elite teams--is James' balky free throw touch. James may simply drive and dunk against the mediocre teams (or the Cavs may be ahead by enough against such teams that this situation won't arise too frequently) but smart teams are simply not going to let James score down the stretch, preferring to foul him if they cannot keep him out of the paint. James only made one of his two free throws and then the Cavs had a defensive breakdown: after the Celtics broke the initial trap, James rushed up to attempt to foul Pierce near midcourt but that left the hoop unprotected and Pierce passed ahead to Leon Powe, who dunked the ball just as Varejao raced back and fouled him. Without talking to the coaches, I don't know if the breakdown here is the fault of the guards, if James blundered by rushing forward or if Varejao (or someone else) was supposed to be the last defender at the hoop. All I do know for sure is that the combination of missing one free throw and then giving up a layup sealed the Cavs' fate in what was a very winnable game. Powe missed his free throw but then James again only made one out of two free throws, leaving the margin at four with just four seconds left. Ray Allen closed out the scoring by sinking two free throws.
We did not see the best out of either team on this night but we did see two teams that define themselves by rebounding and playing good defense. The Cavs brought in Mo Williams and re-signed Daniel Gibson and Delonte West in order to provide offensive support for James, so it would be a good idea to incorporate those players into the offense to a greater extent: James attempted 21 shots while Williams only attempted 10 shots and no other Cav shot more than eight times. Although James is a playmaking small forward, his offensive game is primarily based in the paint, so to balance things out the Cavs need to be able to make some outside shots. Those shots do not necessarily have to be three pointers; they can be 15-20 foot jumpers. With Williams running the point now, it should be possible to create higher percentage shots for James and his teammates than the ones that the Cavs took during this game (the Cavs shot 42.6% from the field).
posted by David Friedman @ 3:22 AM