at Cleveland 101, Boston 93 (Cleveland leads series 1-0)
Offensive Ratings: Cleveland 114.8, Boston 102.8
For two and a half quarters, Game One of the anticipated series between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked like it would follow a relatively similar script to the NBA's 2009-10 season opener, also played between these two teams at Quicken Loans Arena. Then, the Celtics raised questions about Cleveland's off-season addition of Shaquille O'Neal in a 95-89 victory. This time, they led 69-58 at the midway mark of the third quarter and looked largely in control.
As it turns out, however, the Cavaliers in general and O'Neal in particular have come a long way since October, and they demonstrated that the rest of the way. After a dismal first half that saw him miss all four of his shots and pick up three quick fouls, O'Neal regrouped to play a major role in the fourth quarter. He scored six points in the period and his interior defense helped Cleveland stifle Boston down the stretch.
The Celtics struggled to score throughout the fourth quarter, and especially in the last four minutes. Boston entered that stretch trailing by one, but scored on just one of its last seven possessions. The Cavaliers' interior defense stepped up, forcing several misses in the paint, and the Celtics were unable to take advantage on the perimeter.
Meanwhile, LeBron James was looking healthy. While he scored 14 points in the first half and was the only Cleveland starter to provide any kind of consistent offense, James still appeared tentative and to be favoring his injured right elbow. James attempted multiple shots left-handed and wasn't quite himself. In the second half, James was nigh-unstoppable, finishing with 35 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
It was a different Cavalier, however, who sparked the team during the third quarter. Mo Williams, who was severely outplayed by Rajon Rondo in the first half, suddenly caught fire midway through the period and knocked down a series of jumpers. During the stretch, Williams also got up for what the Cleveland PR department alerted the media was his first dunk in two years with the team, posterizing Paul Pierce to Mike Brown's amusement.
Williams' scoring outburst might not have been enough to rally the Cavaliers had it not been accompanied by improved defense. Rondo torched Cleveland before halftime, laying claim to the painted area and either finishing or finding teammates. By the midway point, he had 19 points and eight assists. At halftime, Brown adjusted by putting defensive specialist Anthony Parker on Rondo and moving Williams to Ray Allen. At first, the change seemed to backfire. Rondo kept breaking down the defense, while Allen caught fire from the perimeter.
About when Williams went off, Rondo inexplicably cooled. He picked up his fourth foul and had to leave late in the third quarter, and wasn't the same player in the final period, when he had just three points and two assists. With Paul Pierce (5-of-17 from the field) struggling and blanketed by James, that left Kevin Garnett as the only consistent source of Boston offense. That wasn't enough to get the job done in the late going.
Doc Rivers' big change in Game One was shortening his rotation. Kendrick Perkins was the only starter not to log at least 39 minutes, with Michael Finley reduced to cameo action. Glen Davis, the most productive reserve, might have played more if not for foul trouble, but Rasheed Wallace's short stint was solely due to his own poor play. The Celtics also struggled badly with Tony Allen at the point and Rondo on the bench, getting outscored by nine points in just under six minutes that Rondo sat.
Brown's first-half substitutions were all over the map, but he settled on a rotation after halftime. J.J. Hickson stepped into the minutes Zydrunas Ilgauskas had been playing off the bench after Ilgauskas was wildly ineffective in a first-quarter stint. The combination of Hickson and Anderson Varejao is a far better fit for this series, and Hickson provided an offensive spark with 11 points.
Game One should serve as a solid jumping-off point for this series. While Williams and O'Neal won't likely play as poorly as they did in the first half, nor are they probable to maintain their high level of second-half play. Somewhere in between leaves a competitive matchup. This might have been a missed opportunity for Boston to steal a game on the road, but the Celtics can feel good about the way Garnett dominated Antawn Jamison (seven points on 2-of-6 shooting) and anticipate better shooting than their 25.0 percent accuracy from beyond the arc in Game Two and beyond.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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