CLEVELAND - The bar has been set high, almost impossibly so. This Celtics team has won on defense all season long, leading the NBA in all the pertinent categories, and yet last night, Doc Rivers might as well have worn a Paul Westhead mask.
And, frankly, Mike Brown, his Cleveland counterpart, might as well have worn a Doug Moe mask.
Two teams whose forte is defense showed no inclination to play that particular part of the game. The result was a 114-113 victory for the Cavaliers, allowing Cleveland to become the third team this season to post two wins over Boston. Washington and Orlando are the others. There will be plenty more if the Celtics play defense the way they did last night. Or attempted to play.
It's hard to say which was greater - the number of easy Cleveland baskets or the number of epithets Kevin Garnett must have said in the locker room while trying to restrain himself from throwing every available piece of footwear through the TV screen. Garnett is the anchor on this team, its defensive conscience, and with him out for a fourth straight game with an abdominal strain, his teammates morphed into the Golden State Warriors.
"We're not going to use the Garnett thing as an excuse. We can't. I won't allow it," Rivers said. "We've played well enough to win without him and he's probably not going to be around for a couple more games."
Befitting a game in which layups begat layups, there were 28 lead changes, 23 ties, and no lead greater than 8 points. The referees whistled 52 fouls, 29 on the too-late-getting-to-the-spot Celtics. An inordinate number of fouls were called 20-25 feet from the basket.
But here's the grim news. The Celtics shot 57 percent, scored 113 points, and still lost. That's because the Cavs shot 51 percent, had a 10-rebound advantage, and had LeBron James, who once again torched the Celtics with 33 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals, and 12 assists. (We'll forget the 7 turnovers.)
To a man, no one was happy with the way this one played out. Rivers told his players, "The first team to play defense will win this game." By default, that team became the Cavs.
"It was the worst defense we've played all year, 1 through 5," said Kendrick Perkins. "We gave up 114 points in four quarters, no overtime? That ain't us. That ain't Celtic ball."
Down the hall, the Cavaliers were saying essentially the same thing.
"This is not how we want to win games, by giving up 50 percent shooting to our opponent on our floor," James said. "I think both teams gave up some plays that they don't want to see happen again."
The lead changes all came in the first 36 minutes. The Cavs led by 5 after three and nursed things the rest of the way. Two free throws by James, who played the final 4:43 with five fouls, gave the Cavs a 106-98 lead with 4:52 remaining.
But the Celtics clawed back and four times cut the deficit to 2, the final time coming when a visibly ill Paul Pierce (stomach bug, 19 points) got a fortunate bounce and a hoop with 72 seconds left, making it 112-110. But Boston never got the stop it needed.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas (21 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks) missed, but Rajon Rondo got stripped on a pretty defensive play by Daniel Gibson. Did we say "pretty defensive play"? Actually, it was.
The teams combined for 38 turnovers - Rondo had three of his five in a three-minute stretch in the closing minutes - which on most nights might indicate pressure on the defensive end. Most of these were careless or sloppy plays (or offensive fouls).
After Rondo's turnover, James drew the entire Celtics team on a drive and couldn't convert. The rebound was slapped around. Ray Allen (24 points) thought he had it. Rondo thought he had it. In the end, Gibson got it.
The Celtics were forced to foul, and Ilgauskas nailed two with 16.6 seconds left, making it a 114-110 game. A three by James Posey at the buzzer accounted for the final points.
"That's a tough one to swallow," Rivers said. "I thought we were two good defensive teams going into the game. Both were awful."
The Celtics, however, were just a tad more awful. They allowed an uncontested driving baseline dunk by Ira Newble in the final minute. Ira Newble! They had no answers on transition and hardly anything more on half-court sets. Neither team seemed inclined to play defense because, well, it was so easy to score, so why bother?
"Games like that can turn into shootouts," Ray Allen said. "We've been tremendous all season on the defensive end. For our standards, they scored too many points."
Oh well, at least Cavs fans walked away with free chalupas.
And for the Celtics, there's always the Clippers tonight.