Emotions got the better of the Celtics last night. But the Cleveland Cavaliers could not.
There was some bad blood - confrontations and double technicals in the second and fourth quarters - plenty of sweat, and pregame tears as the Celtics opened defense of their NBA championship with a 90-85 victory.
Paul Pierce set the tone, taking the microphone to center court to pay a choked-up tribute to family, fans, and friends, his two-minute discourse capping ceremonies that included a banner-raising and the awarding of rings to the Celtics. But it took Pierce and his teammates a half to overcome an adrenaline rush caused by the franchise's commemoration of its first title since 1986.
The Celtics' perimeter game was nonexistent for nearly the entire first half. It wasn't until the second half that they gained their composure on offense and adjusted to the Cavaliers' pick-and-roll plays defensively.
The second-half Celtics resembled the defense-minded team that won 16 of 26 games in the playoffs last season, nearly every Cavalier possession contested effectively.
"I've heard so many horror stories about this night," coach Doc Rivers said. "The whole Miami thing - I think that's going to be the poster child for any team that wins it. 'Don't forget the Miami game on national TV with Chicago.' [The Bulls beat the defending champion Heat, 108-66, in their 2006-07 opener]. I think I heard that 30 times over the last two days from different coaches, friends, you guys. So, I'm glad that didn't happen."
The Celtics did start slowly. Their first outside shot, a Kevin Garnett 17-footer, went about 2 feet over the rim in the opening minute.
"I'm known for coming into the Garden and having a hell of a first shot," said Garnett, who missed the rim on his first Celtic shot at the Garden last year.
But the motivation provided by the ceremonies probably didn't hurt the Celtics' aggressive drives into the lane. Pierce (27 points) converted their first points of the season on a dunk 53 seconds in, and Garnett dunked to tie it, 4-4, 19 seconds later.
The Celtics slogged along for most of the first half, unable to find an offensive rhythm, a half-step behind defensively. Some aggressive inside play by Kendrick Perkins provided second chances, though his physicality led to disqualification with 3:33 left in the game.
"In the second half, we played defense," Rivers said. "They scored 50 points in the first half, they were driving by us, we were in foul trouble. We had seven assists at halftime. I told them the ball was not moving, the ball was sticking. [Cleveland] is not a team you are going to beat by dribbling, you are going to beat them with passing."
The Celtics regained their offensive composure after halftime, Pierce and Ray Allen hitting 3-pointers on their first attempts. Rajon Rondo's second-chance shot capped a 10-2 run spanning 4:01 of both halves, giving the Celtics a 53-52 advantage, their first lead of the season.
"Those two threes came off multiple passing," Rivers said. "You turned and said, 'That's the Celtics, the Celtics just showed up.' It's great to not play well and still win."
The Celtics also indicated they could compensate for the loss of James Posey, as Tony Allen (11 points) sparked the offense in the second half.
And they showed they could compensate for the loss of Perkins, whose three personals in a 3:03 span threatened to leave them without a post presence when they really needed it.
Rondo's athleticism and quickness, plus some aggressive drives, made the difference down the stretch. A Rondo drive provided an 82-76 Celtic lead on an Anderson Varejao goaltend with 4:45 to play, then Rondo tipped a rebound to Ray Allen, whose free throw upped the lead to 83-78 with 2:56 remaining.
Garnett's 17-footer provided an 85-80 advantage with 1:53 to go. Rondo's rebound of LeBron James's missed drive led to the Celtics' final possession, Ray Allen taking the ball to the baseline, the Celtics calling a timeout with 27 seconds left, then setting up Pierce for a miss against the defending of Varejao with 15.5 seconds remaining.
In the final 10.6 seconds, the Celtics clinched the victory thanks to two missed foul shots by James, and some efficient play against the Cavaliers' pressing defense.