They were on fire from the start
CLEVELAND — I believe you call it P-R-O-F-E-S-S-I-O-N-A-L-I-S-M. The Celtics might as well have shown up for this game carrying violin cases.
The score didn’t lie. A 120-88 score seldom does. It was a thorough domination, a total beatdown, a complete mastery in the final three periods of a team that led the league with 61 victories this season, but one which has now lost home playoff games to the Boston Celtics by margins of 18 in Game 2 and 32 in Game 5.
Doc Rivers was happy, for sure, but he was also pragmatic. “One thing we told our guys was that we’ve done nothing,’’ he said. “All we’ve done is win three. You’ve got to win four.’’
This is, in fact, a very similar situation to the one the Celtics were in at a comparable stage last year. They were up, three games to two against the Orlando Magic then, and they had the luxury of knowing a potential Game 7 would be at home. If the Celtics don’t get the job done at TD Garden tomorrow night, we’ll all be back here Sunday.
By the way, the Celtics lost that Game 7 at home last year. There have now been three road victories in this series. No one should be struck dumb if there is a fourth.
The Celtics seized control of this game with a second quarter run of 16 straight points that changed a 29-21 deficit into a 37-29 lead. They never relinquished the lead, taking a 50-44 advantage into the locker room and expanding it to 17 (80-63) after three quarters. This team, which had squandered numerous double-digit second-half leads this season, was absolutely relentless last night, creating an atmosphere in which the Cavaliers were booed and booed and booed some more by a very agitated Q Arena sellout gathering of 20,562.
For two days all the pub and all the hype had been centered on Rajon Rondo. But last night was a showcase for the Big Three offensive firm of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, who took turns scorching the Cavaliers (in that order), as they scored 36 of Boston’s first 44 points and 47 of the first 62. It’s always such an easy-looking game when you make shots, and the Celtics shot 55 percent from the floor.
“They’re pretty good,’’ said Rivers, “and we’re not going to stop going to them.’’
Kevin Garnett (18 points) started off shooting well, but the bonus factor in this one was the play of Paul Pierce (21 points), who had been mired in a brutal slump (16 for 50 shooting in the first four games). Pierce wasn’t great (9 for 21), but he was far better than he had been, and it served as a pick-me-up for the team. Ray Allen simply came up big, as he’s done so many times. His game-high 25 points included 6-for-9 3-point shooting.
But what won this game was the defense, especially the job on LeBron James, who shot 3 for 14, who was scoreless from the floor in the first half, and whose first field goal came on a sneakaway dunk almost 30 minutes into the game.
Pierce and Tony Allen were on him, as they usually are, and they have to be given some, but not all, the credit for keeping LeBron in check. “Team,’’ said Rivers. “The team defense on him was really good. We took away his air space. We were in the right spot the entire game. I thought it was one of our best defensive jobs, as far as helping and then recovering.’’
LeBron shrugged it off. “The defense had a little bit to do with it,’’ he said. “They were very aggressive. I just missed a lot of open shots I’m capable of making. It happens.’’
But it’s not supposed to happen in a game of this magnitude. The ramifications of team failure are almost too gruesome to contemplate. What if that was his last home game? Nice memory. Could happen.
That, however, is Cleveland’s problem.
There were so many positive things to talk about in the other locker room Rivers hardly knew where to start. He did say he thought perhaps the key stretch of the game occurred in the second quarter, when he was able to rest a fatigued Rondo without losing much off the lead. “That’s why he was fresh in the second half,’’ Rivers explained.
Rondo was very quiet in the first half, when all the focus was on the Big Three. But he was his usual menacing self in the second half, when he scored all his 16 points, mixing drives with jumpers and even throwing in a buzzer-beating three. His chief accomplice as the Celtics expanded that 17-point three-quarter lead to that whopping 32-point spread was Glen Davis, who played the role of The Closer with 12 fourth-quarter points.
Rivers was pleased with the way Rondo responded to being the hottest conversational topic in all of American sport after that epic 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist performance in Game 4.
“Early on, I was concerned,’’ acknowledged Rivers. “He’s so young. My God. Every time I read something, or turned on the TV, it was ‘Rondo this,’ or ‘Rondo that.’ But I thought he handled himself well.
“We keep telling him. ‘Your job is to run the team,’ and he’s doing a great job. You have no idea about the type of play calls he was making with the coach calling them, and how great that makes me feel.’’
Should anyone be surprised to see something like this happen after this team went 27-14 on the road during the regular season? They played some of their best basketball away from home. “Veteran guys who have been here before,’’ was the way Rivers put it.
But that same group has laid some colossal brontosaurus eggs at TD Garden. Maybe Doc should consider busing ’em to the game tomorrow.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist.