Cavaliers 108, Celtics 88

Cavs run away from Celtics in second half

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / February 26, 2010

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It was a sight not often seen with these Celtics.

With 2:50 remaining in the 108-88 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last night at TD Garden, Celtics coach Doc Rivers threw in the white flag.

His team was down 16 after being up as many as 13 on the Eastern Conference’s top squad, and Rivers sent Brian Scalabrine, Shelden Williams, and Marcus Landry onto the floor with Tony Allen and Nate Robinson.

Part of it was practical. For a team that had dealt with its share of injuries - one that was playing without captain Paul Pierce for the second straight game because of a sprained right thumb - Rivers didn’t want to take any risks.

Part of it was admitting defeat. The Cavaliers outscored the Celtics, 60-32, in the second half, 35-14 in the fourth quarter, and the way they were playing - with Mo Williams spotting up for threes like they were practice shots and LeBron James getting to the free throw line like he had made reservations there - it looked as if they could have piled the lead as high as they wanted.

A game the Celtics once had a firm grasp on had gotten out of hand.

“I’m not a college coach,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t believe in calling timeouts when you’re down 30 with two minutes left. You’re not going to win the game, and if somebody gets injured you’re going to feel worse.

“Give it to them. They beat us. I could have done it, probably, with five minutes left because we didn’t come out and react like we were going to get back in the game.’’

The Celtics have become notorious for playing mixed-bag basketball this season, playing well in stretches and falling apart in others. But for their struggles, the majority of those losses were in games that were within reach and ultimately were decided by two or three baskets.

Playing most people’s preordained NBA finalists for the first time since beating them in the season opener, the Celtics did not break their recent trend.

“We knew it was going to be a test,’’ said Kevin Garnett (10 points, 10 rebounds). “But on the same level, the way they came out, we’ve got to be a 48-minute team. We can’t just play one half and relax, especially against a good team, a proven team, a team full of veterans who are eager.’’

The Celtics looked inspired in the first half. Rajon Rondo scored 12 points in the first quarter, almost single-handedly constructing a 31-21 lead. The Celtics shot 60 percent in the first quarter, and forced the Cavaliers into missing 25 of their 44 first-half shots.

Ray Allen (team-high 21 points) knocked down all three of his first-half 3-point attempts. Garnett had a team-high six rebounds before the break, and the Celtics, who had won four of their last five, look poised to scorch a Cleveland team still trying to work Antawn Jamison into its rotation.

Then came the other 24 minutes.

As expected, James finished with huge numbers (36 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds). As the Celtics’ shooting ran cold (9 of 41 in the second half, 1 for 12 from the 3-point arc), the Cavaliers caught fire. Williams scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half, spotting up in the corner in front of the Celtics’ bench for four fourth-quarter threes that buried the Celtics.

“They were a lot more aggressive in the second half,’’ Garnett said. “The fouls were harder, the way they went to the basket was harder . . . Everything they did was just effective.’’

With Cleveland shooting 64.7 percent in the second half, Rondo saw fewer opportunities to create offense at the other end, going 1 for 7 after intermission and finishing with 19 points and 11 assists.

While the Cavaliers had to play the second half without Shaquille O’Neal, who sprained his thumb midway through the second quarter, the lift they got from Anderson Varejao was more than enough to fill the void.

Varejao, admittedly a nuisance to Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, once again got under the Celtics’ skin, finishing with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, and also coming to the defense of James when he and Perkins got into a shoving match. Varejao shoved Perkins in retaliation, drawing a technical, but he got his point across. From there, the Cavaliers went on a 21-8 run to close the game.

Until last night, the Celtics hadn’t lost by 20 points or more since the Cavaliers beat them by 31 last April 12. The feeling of watching Cleveland close out a convincing win in Boston was awkward.

“I don’t like coming out of a game when you’re losing like that,’’ Allen said. “I’d rather be sitting down having taken care of the game and made sure we won it. But that wasn’t the case tonight.’’

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