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CAVALIERS 94, CELTICS 93

Celtics collapse completely

CLEVELAND -- It was only appropriate that red-and-gold streamers and confetti fell from the rafters before the final buzzer officially sounded, a premature celebration of the Cavaliers' 94-93 come-from-behind victory.

Last night, it was easy to think the game was over before it really was.

When the Celtics established a 25-point lead midway through the third quarter, the game appeared finished. Instead, Cleveland was setting the stage for one of the largest comebacks in franchise history.

The Celtics played loose from the start -- even with starters Theo Ratliff and Wally Szczerbiak sidelined by injury -- and caught Cleveland off guard. They scored the game's first 11 points and led by as many as 20 before halftime, shocking fans and the Cavaliers.

The Celtics just needed to stay aggressive and play defense in the second half to record an unexpected victory.

But they couldn't, forgetting what helped them build their impressive lead, thus suffering one of the worst losses in recent memory.

Although coach Doc Rivers insisted the game was just one of many, it was the kind of loss that can haunt a team for a long time.

"It's one game and it hurts because you lose the game," said Rivers. "But there's no other big thing. It's just that you lost the game and you wanted to win the game and it was a very winnable game. We had them beat and we let them off the hook with our play.

"We tried everything . . . We just stopped attacking. We attacked for three quarters, then we stopped. We stopped playing. You can't do that. You have to play through the fourth quarter, through the clock, and we didn't do that."

The Celtics led by 16 after three quarters, 76-60. But the Cavaliers chipped away in the fourth, closing most dramatically with 3-pointers from Damon Jones and Sasha Pavlovic (14 points) but also receiving key contributions from Anderson Varejao (10 rebounds) and LeBron James (38 points, 8 rebounds).

When Pavlovic nailed a 3-pointer with four minutes remaining, the basket brought Cleveland within 1 (86-85); a driving layup by Larry Hughes with 3:30 left gave the Cavaliers their first lead (87-86).

The home team never trailed again, though its lead stood at 92-91 with 16.4 seconds remaining after a pair of free throws from Tony Allen.

James, who made as many free throws (19) as the entire Celtics roster, stepped to the line for a pair of free throws with 15 seconds remaining to push the Cavaliers ahead, 94-91.

On the Celtics' next possession, Paul Pierce missed a 3-pointer from the left wing and there were more foul shots for Cleveland. But Varejao failed to convert, giving the Celtics another chance to tie.

With 1.7 seconds left and the Celtics trailing by 3, Pierce stepped to the line. He made the first attempt. Trying to miss the second, he made that one, too.

James went to the line at the other end and missed the first. Then, he missed the second, with Donyell Marshall grabbing the rebound.

Cleveland began celebrating its victory before the officials determined that the second free throw never hit the rim, giving the Celtics one last possession with 1.2 seconds on the clock.

Pierce launched a desperation 3- pointer that hit the rim.

"I thought we got some good shots [in the fourth]," said Pierce, who scored 19 points, all in the second half.

"We settled for a lot of jumpers. We just didn't attack. Our shots weren't falling," said Pierce, who was 6 for 21 from the field, including 2 for 10 from 3-point land. "They were aggressive. They got to the line. They got to their shooters. We just played passive the whole fourth quarter. We thought a 16-point lead was good enough, but it wasn't."

During the third quarter, it seemed as if the Celtics had the game wrapped up as their lead stretched to a game-high 25 points (70-45) and Cleveland continued to struggle from the floor. Despite the best efforts of James to rally his team, a history-making comeback seemed unlikely at that point. But James always believed it was possible.

"I feel like any time I'm on the court, it doesn't matter how many points my team is down, we always have a chance to win," said James. "We easily could have packed it up, but that's not who I am and I won't allow my team to do that."

Playing with its fifth starting lineup in six games, the Celtics did not know what to expect inside the Quicken Loans Arena. But for the Celtics, who have had their share of surprises this season, none was more welcome than what happened in the first half, which ended with them up, 48-34.

Kendrick Perkins (12 points, 11 rebounds), starting at center for the injured Ratliff, opened the scoring with a reverse layup, then Delonte West (12 points) and Ryan Gomes (11 points) made contributions.

Although the starters had not spent much time playing together, they succeeded with a brand of unselfish basketball, collecting five assists on their first six field goals. After the Cavaliers closed to 12-6, the Celtics rattled off a 13-0 run.

It was as if all the bad karma Boston dealt with from the start of training camp -- the death of Red Auerbach, injuries to starters, bacterial infections, the Telfair robbery in New York, Al Jefferson's appendicitis, the shortness of breath and chest pain suffered by Telfair Friday night -- disappeared during the first 12 minutes.

But then it only took the fourth quarter to produce an equally unexpected reversal of fortune.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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