Garnett Comes Up as Big One for Celtics
LeBron James sank behind a wall of bodies, barely visible or audible from even a few feet away, his usual regal presence muted by the crowd and the din that surrounded him.
This was James, crouched in a corner of the visitors’ locker room late Tuesday night, a defeated figure. The scene had been much the same on the parquet floor, where the Boston Celtics harassed James into erratic playmaking and poor shooting and took a 76-72 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers to open this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
In what qualified as the worst game of James’s playoff career, the Cavaliers’ star missed 16 of 18 field goals and committed 10 turnovers. He finished with a near triple-double (12 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists), but it hardly seemed relevant.
So James, who typically is the last person to speak after a game, and always does so from a podium, instead spoke briefly at his locker, sitting down.
“I missed a lot of shots that I usually make,” he said. “I missed a few layups that I know I can make. I missed a few pull-ups I know I can make. Give a lot of credit to their defense. They’re very good.”
The Celtics won a league-high 66 games because of their suffocating defense, and they never needed it more than they did Tuesday. Two of their three stars were as bad as James was. Paul Pierce (4 points) went 2 for 14 from the field and had six turnovers, and Ray Allen went scoreless in 37 minutes.
Of the four superstars in the building, only Kevin Garnett had the numbers and the clutch plays to match his stature. He finished with 28 points, including the eventual game-winner, a spinning lay-in past Joe Smith with 21.4 seconds left that gave the Celtics a 74-72 lead. James Posey, who defended James for much of the night, provided the final 2 points from the foul line.
James missed a driving layup and a 3-pointer in the last 20 seconds, and the Celtics — who survived a grueling seven-game series with the Atlanta Hawks — pulled out the win.
The missed layup in traffic, with Kendrick Perkins in front of him and Garnett closing in, typified James’s frustrating evening.
“That play right there is just the type of night I was having, where the ball was all the way in and then it just jumped out,” he said.
With four of the league’s premier players on the court, it should have been a night for offensive fireworks. It was not. The Celtics brought the league’s best defense, the Cavaliers matched it, and the ball always seemed to be going anywhere but the basket. Boston had 23 turnovers. Cleveland had 18, plus 52 missed field goals (on 75 attempts). The teams reached the fourth quarter with a halftime score: 53-52, in favor of the Celtics.
“I thought it was the Knicks-Heat series for about 20 minutes of that game,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. “It was a beautiful win. I guess I’ll put it that way.”
Garnett was hot early and clutch late.
“That’s why we got three superstars,” Perkins said. “His name is Big Ticket for a reason. We’re going to throw it in there, go to work. He’s either going to make it or miss. We still love him either way.”
Cleveland leaned on Zydrunas Ilgauskas (22 points) and Wally Szczerbiak (13 points), a former Celtic. And the Cavaliers nearly beat the N.B.A.’s top team despite a career-worst performance from James, their only star player. The Celtics, if the slumping Pierce and Allen do not regain their form soon, may have more to worry about.
“We know how to lock down on defense, too,” said James, who led his team to the finals last season. “It’s going to be like this almost every game.”
After trailing by as many as 12 points in the first half, the Cavaliers seized control with a 14-0 run in the third quarter and took a 51-45 lead. Boston surged back ahead when Sam Cassell made a pair of 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter. Cassell also made two free throws in the final minute.
Garnett was the brightest star early, scoring 16 points to lead the Celtics to a 41-37 halftime lead. Rajon Rondo, who was arguably the least recognizable starter on the court, outshined everyone else with 15 points.
The Cavaliers converted 11 of 38 field goals in the half and would have faded quickly if not for James’s frequent trips to the foul line. He made 8 of 10 free throws, many of them accompanied by wails from the fans, who seemed to think James was embellishing every foul.
When Cassell and Allen caught James on a fast-break attempt, his head snapped back. Cassell was called for a flagrant foul, evoking a profane chant that indicated the crowd’s doubt.
NBA names four most intriguing people in 2008 playoffs...
And KG is one of them!
While a lot of pixels were devoted to the struggles of LBJ, Pierce, and Allen, KG got very few props.
Sure, he was the high scorer, but a fundamental change in the Big Ticket may have taken place last night.
KG’s rep before last night was of a dominant presence that seemed to disappear with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Last night he took some huge steps to get rid of that.
On the second to last possession, with the game tied at 72-72, Garnett was fed the ball and he backed down Joe Smith. As recent as two weeks ago, he would have passed to the 0-for-4 Ray Allen or the 2-for-14 Paul Pierce for a jumper.
Instead, he decided that the game was his to win. He gave Smith a bump, and then spun by him for a quick layup to give the C’s the lead for good.
Could this be a shift in the way KG approaches the end of games? Probably nothing that drastic, but it did show him that he can take over the game.
Maybe if Pierce or Allen were having a better night he might have fed it to them, but at least he learned that he is the closest to the basket and he can make that last shot if he wants to.
The other three players are:
David West of the New Orleans Hornets
Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers
Koby Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers