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Bob Ryan

They're sitting pretty

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 9, 2008

They have no nickname and no clever ESPN promo. They just happen to be four pros who saved a playoff game for the Boston Celtics.

Three are cagey vets with a cumulative 38 NBA seasons of experience and the fourth is an inspirational young man who plays every game as if he's been asked to save the entire city from enslavement. Without them, well, who knows? It might have been disastrous. Instead, the Celtics eventually walked off all smiley last night after an 89-73 Game 2 conquest of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"We gave our starters a break," said Sam Cassell. "Our starters' energy level wasn't there at the beginning of the game."

Facts are facts. The Boston bench altered the course of the game. The Celtics were trailing, 17-9, when Doc Rivers made his first substitution, Leon Powe for Kendrick Perkins. It was 21-9 when he inserted Cassell and James Posey for Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. A little more than a minute later, P.J. Brown replaced Kevin Garnett, by which time Cassell already had started the Celtics on the way back with a foul line jumper 10 seconds after entering the game, followed by a pair of free throws by Powe, who hustled downcourt to take a nice feed from Paul Pierce.

By the time Doc saw fit to make a second-quarter sub, the Cleveland lead was down to 1 at 27-26. Posey almost immediately poke-checked the ball away from the struggling LeBron James at midcourt and turned that into a sneakaway dunk for Boston's first lead. It would be tied at 30 on a Wally Szczerbiak 3-pointer, but the momentum shift was thorough and irreversible. The Celtics were in control, eventually leading by as many as 24 (86-62) in the final quarter.

But to know what really happened in this game, you had to dial it all the way back to that fateful stretch when the Celtics' second unit turned the game in Boston's favor. The Boston subs outscored the Cleveland starters, 26-18 (to go with 12 rebounds and 4 assists), but that was only part of the story.

"The second unit gave us energy and effort," said Rivers. "Everybody wants to start off the game well, but I thought we started off flat. We just didn't have great energy to start the game. The second unit saw that. They saw it in timeouts when we talked about it. They came out and did it. No adjustments. We didn't make a defensive adjustment. We just got to places quicker, faster, and better."

"I thought the bench was a real key to why we got the lead and kept the lead," agreed Pierce.

"In the beginning, they were playing with more energy than we were," observed the 6-foot-11-inch Brown, a 38-year-old frontcourt soldier. "They were desperate. They didn't want to go down, 2-0. They were playing with more intensity."

"Our job is to go in there and make something happen," explained Powe, an earnest young man who has transformed himself from someone you hope won't hurt the team during his time on the floor to a very positive force who often upgrades the situation enormously.

Powe is listed at 6-8, which may be a bit generous. Whatever his true size, he is a fierce inside competitor who backs down from no one, not even a mountain of a man such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the amazing 7-3 Cleveland center with the soft outside touch and the hulking defensive presence.

Powe was relatively quiet in Game 1, but the second-year kid from Cal was a major force last evening, submitting 9 of his 11 points and six of his seven rebounds during a vital 15-minute stint in the first half. This is nothing we haven't been seeing again and again the past two months, but this was a playoff game, and that speaks for itself.

There is nothing fancy or sophisticated in what Leon Powe does. He's just an aggressive post man who simply comes to play.

"I just try to be efficient in the time I have," he said. "When they call my name, I try to give 110 percent."

Next up: Posey. Way back in the middle of the season, Pat Riley told the Boston media that Posey would really start asserting himself when the playoffs arrived. Last night was Exhibit A. The 10-year vet was a two-way force, harassing LeBron while scoring a pair of baskets as the Celtics were making up the 12-point deficit.

"I enjoy playing with Pose," said Brown. "He's a savvy vet. He doesn't have the quickest feet, but he knows how to stay in front of LeBron, and I think he's getting under his skin a little bit. He's a great teammate."

"Right now it's just play hard or go home," Posey shrugged. "We're playing hard. We've just got to keep it up."

Sam Cassell is, well, Sam Cassell. As previously noted, it took Sam all of 10 seconds to find the basket. That was the beginning of a run that would last for the rest of the half. That's right. Once Sam entered the game in place of Rondo, he played the remaining 15 minutes of the half, scoring 9 points, the last 2 of which came on a drive that beat the halftime buzzer by a 10th of a second.

"I've played against him for a long time," said Brown. "Big Shot Sam. He's hurt my teams in the playoffs. He just loves the game, and he knows what it's all about. He and Pose are the only two here who have been to the mountaintop."

As for P.J. himself, the big guy pulled down two rebounds, did what he had to do on defense, and even scored a pair of baskets. "I'm just trying to stay ready," he said. "I don't get a heads-up if I'm going to play. It's all free-flowing and random.

"I've just got to be ready when my name is called."

They all were, and that's a major reason the Celtics will head to Cleveland up, two games to none.

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