Ray Allen scored 25 points to pace six Celtics in double figures as the Boston Celtics dealt the Cleveland Cavaliers their worst home playoff loss in franchise history, 120-88. A stunned sellout crowd of 20,562 fans booed two-time regular season MVP LeBron James and the other Cavaliers and then left en masse long before the final buzzer of what has to be considered one of the most stunning collapses by a top seeded team in NBA playoff history, a debacle topped perhaps only by Dallas’ loss to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. Granted, this series is not over yet and James may very well lead the Cavs to the two straight wins they need in order to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals but even if that happens it is still unbelievable that the team with the best regular season record in the league for the past two years–a team that has been all but unbeatable at home–has suffered two blowout losses in Cleveland in the past eight days.
Prior to this game much was made of how important it would be for the Cavaliers to contain All-Star guard Rajon Rondo, who erupted for 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in Boston’s 97-87 game four win over Cleveland on Sunday. The Cavs won that battle to some extent–limiting Rondo to no points, three assists and one rebound in the first half, though he scored 12 points in the third quarter–but lost the larger war as Boston’s Hall of Fame “Big Three” had their best collective performance of the series: in addition to Allen’s output, Paul Pierce had 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, while Kevin Garnett added 18 points and six rebounds. Starting center Kendrick Perkins contributed 10 points and seven rebounds, while key reserve big man Glen Davis produced 15 points and four rebounds.
The Celtics outshot the Cavs .550-.412, outscored them 44-30 in the paint and outrebounded them 41-31. Shaquille O’Neal led Cleveland with 21 points on 7-11 field goal shooting, Anthony Parker scored 14 points on 5-9 field goal shooting and Anderson Varejao scored five points with a team-high eight rebounds–but they were the only Cavs who played at or above expected levels and the only ones who displayed any energy. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had five points and three rebounds in a 14 minute cameo, which is about as much as could be reasonably expected after he had been mothballed recently.
There is no way around the fact that the number one story emerging from this game–with all due respect to the excellent effort by the 2008 NBA Champion Celtics, a team that clearly has a lot of pride and determination–is the lethargic performance authored by James: not only were his numbers subpar–15 points on 3-14 field goal shooting, seven assists, six rebounds–but he had very little real impact on the overall course of the game at either end of the court; for most of the night he looked like about the seventh best player in the game. James–who owns the third highest regular season scoring average in NBA/ABA history and the third highest playoff scoring average in NBA/ABA history–did not make a single field goal until the 6:15 mark of the third quarter. James’ mysterious elbow ailment has been the subject of seemingly endless speculation but–as I wrote last Friday–I really do not want to hear any more about that: TNT’s Kenny Smith righly noted that if James had not dramatically shot a late game free throw left handed versus the Bulls then no one would even suspect that James is injured; James shows no signs of being physically limited and just two games ago he produced a stat line of 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a 124-95 Cleveland win at Boston, scoring a team playoff record 21 first quarter points to set the tone right from the start. Unfortunately for the Cavs, James also set the tone in game five–but this time the tone was one of indifference. James did not attack the hoop, spending most of the game loitering aimlessly behind the three point line. Kobe Bryant was once senselessly criticized for supposedly quitting in a playoff game during which he scored 23 first half points before scoring just one point in the second half but there is a valid explanation for that dichotomy: the Lakers were getting blown out despite Bryant’s early productivity, so Coach Phil Jackson decided during halftime that the Lakers should use their “inside man” strategy to attempt to slow the game down. Bryant followed Jackson’s instructions and attempted to feed his big men but the game soon got out of hand.
James’ performance on Tuesday was not part of some game plan made by Coach Mike Brown; it is vividly apparent that to beat the Celtics the Cavs need to be very aggressive at both ends of the court and James must be the leader in that regard. He failed miserably. After the game, James displayed the same nonchalant attitude that he had after Cleveland’s blowout loss in game two of this series, which ironically was the night that he officially received the 2010 MVP trophy. James admitted that the fans had every right to boo as the Celtics pulled away in game five but he also acted as if his bad performance is no big deal because he has rarely had an off night during his seven year career. It is true that James has been remarkably consistent and productive but that does not excuse his lack of intensity while pursuing what should be his ultimate quest: the drive to win a championship. An off night in the fourth game of five nights during the dog days of the regular season is one thing, but James stunk up the joint in a pivotal game five on his own homecourt.
We have already seen several momentum swings in this series as the teams have traded blowouts and proven that they can win on the road. Though history shows that the game five winner of a 2-2 series is the overwhelming favorite to advance, it certainly is not beyond the realm of possibility that James and the Cavs will awake from their self-induced comas, play up to the high standard that they set throughout this season and beat the Celtics two times–but James has seemed so nonchalant during this series (except for game three) that at this point it is difficult to believe that he and the Cavs really have the necessary mental fortitude to beat a proud, championship-level team in an elimination game.
I do not believe in making too much out of one game; James’ performance does not invalidate the MVP awards that he earned with consistently outstanding efforts over the course of two regular seasons, but it does show once again why it is so necessary to be judicious about throwing around the title “greatest player ever.” Not too long ago, I read and heard some discussions about whether James should already be considered a candidate for that mythical title. In my Pantheon series I made the important point that it is difficult, if not impossible, to select one player as the absolute greatest–but even if it were possible to do so it should be noted that James’ accomplishments, while quite impressive, do not yet exceed the individual and/or collective feats of Pantheon members Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving.
James’ current concern is not so much his place in history but rather making sure that the Celtics do not turn the Cavs’ current season into history. Even though the Cavs got blown out in game five they did establish some positive things that they can build on in game six: O’Neal showed that he can still score in the post and get opposing big men in foul trouble, while Parker demonstrated that he can play solid perimeter defense and also hit timely jumpers to loosen up Boston’s defense. Antawn Jamison (nine points, six rebounds) is most effective versus Garnett when he is on the move and the Cavs should make a conscious effort to get Jamison more involved in the offense. The Cavs led 29-21 early in the second quarter before the Celtics used a 16-0 run to take control of the game, a pattern that is eerily reminiscent of how the Cavs built early leads versus Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals only to fall apart later. The Cavs have the necessary personnel to match up with the Celtics and the Cavs have proven that they are capable of playing excellent defense while also being efficient offensively, so game six must consist of 48 minutes of focused energy. This series will not be decided by James’ elbow but rather by his mind, heart and spirit, because he and the Cavs possess the necessary physical tools to get the job done.
Notes From Courtside:
Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a two-time All-Star who was the starting center for Cleveland’s 66-16 team in 2008-09 and who was a major part of Cleveland’s rotation this season both before and after being forced to go on hiatus for 30 days as part of the Antawn Jamison trade. However, he only made cameo appearances versus Chicago in the first round and he had played just five minutes versus Boston prior to game five. During Coach Brown’s pregame standup, I asked him, “I know that you have a minutes sheet that you always go by in terms of your rotation. Was it part of your plan coming into this series that Ilgauskas would really have such a reduced role–or no role–or is that something that has developed as a result of how each game has gone?”
Coach Brown replied, “Yeah, I keep a minutes sheet on a card in my breast pocket. It’s like a rough draft, something to go by–like a game plan. When you have a game plan it helps you to prepare for the game. The minutes sheet, although I have it, I don’t know if there has been one time in my entire career that I have followed it to the ‘t.’ If you looked at my minutes sheet from the last game you would say, ‘That doesn’t match what you did.’ So, again, it’s just a tool to help me think and help me prepare for the game but very seldom if at any time at all have I followed it person by person or minute by minute. I just kind of go by the flow of the game; I threw J.J. (Hickson) in a couple games ago and he played well so I went with him but it wasn’t (written) anywhere going into the game that I had Z sitting and J.J. playing. I play who I think can help us out.”
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced the winners of the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Awards that are annually presented to members of the electronic and print media. Cavs radio play by play announcer Joe Tait will receive this year’s award for electronic media. Tait has been the voice of the Cavaliers for a total of 38 seasons. Prior to being hired by the Cavs he worked as a pre game host for the Indiana Pacers in the ABA. Tait also briefly served as an announcer for the New Jersey Nets (1981) and Chicago Bulls (1982) before rejoining the Cavs after George and Gordon Gund bought the team from the infamous Ted Stepien. Tait is the 21st winner of the Gowdy Award for members of the electronic media; Doug Collins received the honor in 2009 and previous winners include Hubie Brown, Marv Albert and Dick Stockton.
Jackie MacMullan will receive this year’s award for members of the print media. She is the first female honoree. MacMullan wrote for the Boston Globe from 1982 until 2008 and she co-wrote the bestselling book When the Game was Ours with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Previous Gowdy Award winners for print media include Pete Vecsey, David DuPree, Mark Heisler, Jack McCallum, Phil Jasner and Bob Ryan.