CLEVELAND -- Doc Rivers said he wanted to win the game. But when push came to shove, he coached like a man who had nothing to win by winning -- which was true -- and that usually leads to losing. Which was also true.
In a game that meant squat to the Celtics and everything to the Cavaliers, both teams played true to form. The Cavs, needing a win to avoid playoff elimination, got 32 points from LeBron James and 22 from Robert "Tractor" Traylor and won going away, 100-86. The victory snapped Boston's four-game winning streak, but that bothered Rivers not at all.
His goals for the evening were to rest his regulars, give the kids some meaningful minutes, and hope that no one got hurt. If a victory resulted, so much the better.
"We hung in there for a while," Rivers said wistfully.
But when your fourth-quarter rotation consists of Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, four rookies, and no one else with more than two years of experience, you are rolling the proverbial dice. The result was a 15-point quarter (8 by Davis) and not a single point after a Kendrick Perkins 3-point play with 3:46 left. The Cavs, leading by 4 after Perk's play, then closed with a 10-0 run, which featured a highlight dunk by James amid chants of "MVP, MVP," by the sellout crowd of 20,562 in Cleveland's home finale.
The numbers Rivers liked, however, were the 19 minutes that Raef LaFrentz played and the 23 minutes that Gary Payton played, his fewest since March 4. Paul Pierce (5 points, all in the third quarter) played only 27 minutes. Antoine Walker was the marathon man; he went 30 and led the team with 22 points. Davis (15) and LaFrentz (11) were the only others in double figures.
"LeBron offered me one-fourth of his
Rivers said before the game that he would be consistent in his dispersal of minutes in the last two games, given that both Cleveland and New Jersey are battling for the same playoff spot. The Nets won last night against Washington and can clinch the last spot with a win tonight in Boston. (Here's a suggestion to rotisserie geeks: Use someone other than Pierce.)
"I'm going to keep the minutes the exact same," Rivers said. "I think it's only fair. It's the right thing to do. If we did it against Cleveland, we do it against New Jersey."
In other words, look for a lot of Danny Ainge's draft picks in the fourth quarter tonight.
"It's important that the young guys get some time," Payton said. "They're going to have to be ready."
That's the theory, anyway.
The Celtics, who trailed, 77-71, after three, opened the fourth with a lineup of Justin Reed, Davis, Marcus Banks, Perkins, and Blount. A 10-5 run got the crypto-Celtics within 82-81. Then Rivers took out Blount with 5:07 left and replaced him with Al Jefferson. Banks went out for Delonte West. Perkins went out for Tony Allen. It was like watching a Summer League game.
The Cavs got it back to 90-83 following a James trey and a second-chancer by exuberant rookie Anderson Varejao, who had nine rebounds in 25 minutes as the Cavs clobbered Boston on the glass, 48-30. But Perkins got loose underneath for the aforementioned 3-point play and, just like that, it was a 4-point game.
On the next possession, Ira Newble missed, and in the scramble for the rebound, Reed came up with the ball and called time. Before that, he was kicked by Traylor. A technical was called on the Tractor, but Davis missed. Jefferson and Reed then missed and Eric Snow's layup with three minutes left started the 10-0 closing run for Cleveland.
"We came in with the mind-set that we wanted to win the game," James said. "And we did."
The Celtics' mind-set? Let's call it the Constitution Game Plan: preserve, protect, and defend. Hey, two out of three ain't bad. They might not have won, but no one in the Boston locker room was even remotely upset.
You can look for more of the same tonight. The Nets will have no qualms about playing Jason Kidd and Vince Carter as long as need be. Their postseason is on the line. The Cavs will do the same in Toronto against the hapless Raptors.
But if Rivers is true to his word, the next time you'll see Pierce or Payton in the fourth quarter is Saturday night, when the games start to matter again.