Weekly Countdown: Cavs-Celtics rivalry still great
The Cavs overcame a torrid Boston start to destroy it 60-32 in second half
With a new rich owner, new city and max cap space, the Nets can bounce back
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5 Points of dynamic rivalry
Boston and Cleveland measure themselves against the other, and as the Celtics look up Friday morning LeBron James suddenly appears 11 feet tall.
The Rivalry. I will admit approaching the Cavaliers-Celtics game Thursday in Boston with the belief that theirs is the league's most competitive feud. "It's the most compelling, in some ways,'' Boston coach Doc Rivers had agreed. "I think the Lakers-Celtics is the best, you can't beat that. But as far as style of ball and matching, it's really good. I don't think you'll get better basketball.''
Over the previous two years when both teams were whole and in synch -- which neither had been lately coming into this game -- they had been two contenders seeking to dominate each other defensively, like opponents in an NFL championship game from the 1960s.
"It reminds me of how we played,'' Rivers said of his era, "like the New York-Chicago matchup [in the late days of Michael Jordan]. When two teams kind of mirror each other, it makes for a great game. It can be ugly, which means it can be low scoring. But it still can be great.''
Then, all of a sudden, the Cavs overcame a torrid Boston start to destroy the Celtics 60-32 over the second half to conclude a revealing 108-88 victory, their first at Boston in 10 games. They did so after Shaquille O'Neal left in the second quarter with what was termed a "significant'' sprain of his right thumb (he was ruled out of Friday's game at Toronto while awaiting further tests).
"We haven't had much success here,'' James said after producing 36 points and nine assists with two turnovers. And yet he did not behave as if something important had been achieved. "It's not about which teams you beat,'' he went on. "It's about playing well, keeping your momentum up all year, and playing well going into the playoffs.''
Now that is a scary thing when a 25-year-old plays with the wisdom of someone five years older and puts it all in perspective afterward like he's 35. The Celtics, ironically, need to develop that perspective, but the only way to embrace it is to live by it. The NBA does not believe in Cinderella stories, as this league demands and rewards consistency of effort and success over the length of the interminable season.
All season Kevin Garnett has been preaching the need to play all-out, even while recognizing that his injuries have prevented him from fulfilling that goal.
"I know you guys are tired of writing it in your columns, I apologize for all that,'' he said. "At some point there has to be some action, you're right, you're totally right. Doc has a saying, 'You have to run through the whole race,' and we've got to do that. Until we players decide to do that, we're going to be in this predicament.''
But here are three things to remember before you kill off the Celtics. (1) On opening night they were the team that overcame an early 14-point deficit to win at Cleveland for the first time in 12 visits, which at that time set off alarms around the Cavaliers. (2) Paul Pierce was sidelined from this game with a sprained right thumb of his own. (3) Their collapse was altogether predictable because they aren't yet capable of the 48-minute effort. But the Celtics' fluid opening half was a long-awaited sign that they aren't quite dead yet, for while Rajon Rondo was pushing the tempo, there was Garnett running along with him. If Garnett's legs continue to strengthen and they take this embarrassment to heart ...
That's as far as hope for this team goes. No one should be predicting good times to come for the Celtics; this is nothing more than a warning to not bury the patient too early.
The point guards. Mo Williams had been struggling to regain his form since returning Feb. 18 from a left shoulder sprain that sidelined him for a month. "It won't take long,'' he told me before the game as LeBron and Shaq lay on training tables across the room receiving treatment. "Maybe I'll have my breakout game tonight.''
He was looking forward to his matchup with Rondo, who had taken over Williams' place as a reserve point guard on the All-Star team. "He dominates the ball, so you've got to be prepared for a lot of pick-and-roll,'' Williams said. "You try to take him out of his comfort zone. Make him make a few jumpers -- and hope he makes a few jumpers, and he'll want to shoot the ball more.''
That optimism backfired on him early as the Celtics ran out -- literally -- to a 21-12 lead with Rondo responsible for all of the points, hitting 5-of-7 shots and assisting on the other five baskets. Williams was so yielding defensively that he was benched in the eighth minute.
The truth is that a team effort was needed to cut off Rondo's lanes to the basket, and a team effort indeed met him and began to turn him away. The Celtics, predictably, slowed and then stopped running altogether as James began to take over at the other end. From an early 20-point deficit, the Cavs pushed themselves out front in the fourth quarter and then pulled away on a trio of threes from Williams, who was inexplicably left uncovered by Boston's hopelessly disorganized transition defense. The flurry was preceded by an airballed three from Rondo, true to Williams' intentions.
"After the game I told him, 'Welcome back. Welcome back, Mo,' '' James said.
Williams (7-of-13 overall in 31 minutes) wound up equaling Rondo's 19 points on six fewer shots and in 14 fewer minutes. Afterward I reminded him of his predictions. "Oh, yeah,'' he said, lighting up. "Write that.'' No kidding.
The difference-maker. As much as it has helped Cleveland to trade for Shaq (who has limited Dwight Howard this season) and will help to have recently arrived Antawn Jamison (who had nine points and four turnovers while exploring his newfound role), the biggest improvement in the Cavs this year may come from Anderson Varejao, their backup big man now in his sixth year with the team.
As strong as the 6-foot-11 Garnett looked at times in the first half, he was outplayed at both ends by the 6-11 Brazilian. He outscored Garnett 14-10 while taking three fewer shots. Varejao went 6-for-7 with startling versatility, whether he was canning an open 19-footer, scoring across the lane or tip-slamming a teammate's miss. He has turned into an effective passer, and his defense is more aggravating than ever in ways that no one can appreciate better than Garnett. Varejao blocked three shots, flopped at midcourt to draw a foul and was crucial in shunting Rondo's drives.
If Garnett cannot reclaim his title from Varejao as the most active big man on the floor, then the Celtics have no hope in an eventual playoff rematch, if they should get that far.
The urgency to win now. Before this game the teams warmed up to a background of military music that accompanied video highlights of Boston's championship two years ago, including its excruciating seven-game victory over Cleveland. The Cavs did not look up at the video screen to see what they'd lost. It hung over them like a cloud, that which they wanted and which the Celtics already had.
The promise of James' talent and the curse of possibly losing him to free agency this summer have driven Cleveland to pursue an expensive now-or-nothing approach, even though he remains, by his potentially unprecedented standards, an unfinished talent (another fright for his opponents). The complementary acquisitions of Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, as well as the foundational trades for Shaq and Jamison, have been presented as gifts of devotion to LeBron as well as pieces toward winning a championship, which, in light of the 2010 conjecture, can sometimes appear -- altogether inaccurately -- to be the secondary goal.
The Celtics are under similar pressure, but it isn't nearly as severe throughout their organization as the need to succeed that is driving these Cavaliers. Of course, the Celtics must win now because the air is running thin for Garnett, who at 33 has been limited by knee problems over the last year, and 34-year-old Ray Allen, who becomes a free agent in July with little fiscal opportunity for the Celtics to find a replacement of his standard. And yet it stands to reason that the Celtics cannot be as hungry as Cleveland. These Celtics already have their championship, and they may find out that their ambitions to win again are defined and ultimately limited by their health and age, and that nothing can be done to change their nature.
The future. With this win the Cavaliers have given themselves one more reason to believe, and yet they've suffered too many playoff losses -- against San Antonio, Boston and Orlando over the last three years -- to celebrate these little victories.
Before the game I asked James if it's possible to have too much talent, which is a concern some around the league have raised now that Cleveland has squeezed Jamison into a frontcourt replete with Shaq, Varejao, and J.J. Hickson, with Leon Powe making his homecoming return from knee surgery Thursday (he celebrated his Cavs debut by scoring four points in four minutes against his former team) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas expected to return next month following his contract buyout from the Wizards.
"It's a good problem to have,'' James said in the early evening.
Later that night he picked up that point. "Someone asked if we had too many bigs,'' he recalled, and now it's clear they don't. They are deep, versatile and yet humble enough to play hard around the game's greatest talent. The Celtics may have hopes of catching and overtaking them, but the former champions have been made to realize now that their opponent is no stationary target. The Cavs are rising and rising fast.
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