Top seed now has fight on its hands
CLEVELAND — Cavaliers coach Mike Brown stormed into his postgame media session last night with more urgency than his club has had the past two games against the Celtics. His frustration was justified because he realizes his team is one poor Boston quarter from being down, 0-2, in the series.
The Celtics spent the past three days in Northeast Ohio obliterating the mystique of the Cavaliers. Cleveland spent all season treating itself like an NBA champion, adoring itself with pregame charades and finally crowning LeBron James with his second Most Valuable Player award Sunday in Akron as if it was a precursor to more glittering hardware.
Now the Cavaliers head to Boston for Friday night’s Game 3 with major concerns following the Celtics’ 104-86 whitewashing last night, which included a 31-12 third-quarter surge. The Celtics then withstood a 5-minute-40-second scoring drought in the fourth quarter and ended Game 2 not sagging on the ropes, but punching back with a late flurry and extinguishing any Cleveland momentum heading into a three-day break.
The Celtics entered this series as decided underdogs. Many NBA pundits said the Cavaliers would win in four or five. Cleveland is one of the tougher road venues in the NBA and the crowd made a difference in the third quarter of Game 1, when Mo Williams scored 10 consecutive points and the Cavaliers played themselves back into the game.
Last night, the Celtics again started strong and reduced the crowd effect. And a team that has been mostly dreadful this season in the third quarter reacted with a 21-4 run to quiet not only the crowd but the supremely confident Cavaliers, who had not lost a home game with LeBron James in the lineup since Feb. 18.
After dropping Game 1 because of a listless fourth quarter, the Celtics easily could have folded at the first sign of adversity in Game 2. And that adversity was present with the officiating. Cleveland went 19:26 of the game without a team foul and the disparity was 17-4 early in the third quarter. The Celtics refrained from settling for the jump shot and continued to pound the ball in the paint, and eventually drew the fouls they didn’t Saturday night.
And although James did score 24 points and had seven rebounds, he never exploded offensively, as the rest of his teammates watched and waited. The Cavaliers have been accused of being a one-man team when James goes one-on-five when they need a bucket, and the Celtics made those accusations appear true, forcing the rest of the Cavaliers to finish 21 for 55 (38 percent) from the field.
Considered a punch-drunk former champion chasing one last taste of glory, by gaining a split the Celtics are now legitimately an Eastern Conference contender. Six and a half good quarters in Cleveland have changed their perception.
“I am sure they read [about being written off]. I am sure they hear it,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I am sure they have a lot of pride, but I don’t know if that helps you when they throw that ball up. You still have to guard LeBron James. The only thing we keep talking about is that we have to be a good team. We’re not going to beat anybody individually, but if we can do it together we have a good shot.’’
The Cavaliers struggled more than expected with the Bulls in the first round. Chicago nearly won twice in Cleveland but each time James delivered and the Cavaliers retained their mystique. Rivers was right when he said that somehow Cleveland has been anointed the favorite despite falling short of the Finals last season.
A regular season of beating up on teams at home, a 13-game winning streak, and two victories against the Lakers cemented their lofty status. But the Celtics never appeared intimidated, even when they were relegated to fourth seed and knew the Cavaliers were looming in the second round.
“I just think, honestly, we’re a veteran team and the more our focus is as a unit, the more productive we are,’’ guard Tony Allen said. “And that’s just key down the stretch. Game 1, we had the lead and I don’t think our focus was there. Once we keep our focus for 48 minutes, we’re a tough team.’’
The Celtics shouldn’t have flown back to Boston last night relishing their accomplishments. Great teams get greedy, and this great team — depending on the day and upon whom you ask — could have been headed home with a two-game lead.
The Celtics blew an 11-point halftime lead Saturday night and scored 39 second-half points to give the Cavaliers the victory. Better execution, a couple of more stops, and more hustle could have meant a commanding lead. So there is much work to do for a team with expectations that have risen exponentially in the past 48 hours.
“We can’t now go back and talk about what we should have done or what we could have done,’’ guard Ray Allen said. “But I think every game, every possession, every quarter you learn something. I think we definitely learned — being on the road here early — that each moment we’ve got to take advantage of.
“We have to be careful how we treat the end of the quarters. You can’t take a possession off. You’ve got to continue to be aggressive no matter what the score is. Game 1 we were in that position and we didn’t stay aggressive. It’s almost like we were trying not to lose.
“We’ve got to monitor that for the rest of the way on out.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.