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Jackie MacMullan

Cavaliers star had been a royal pain

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / February 28, 2008

LeBron James has so thoroughly shredded the Celtics during his young reign as the King of the East, you'd be hard pressed to find any way to put a positive spin on it from Boston's perspective, unless, of course, you are resident glass-half-full philosopher Glenn "Doc" Rivers.

"Hey, I'm 1-0 with him," cracked the Celtics coach, referring to the Eastern Conference All-Star win he pocketed in New Orleans on the strength of LeBron's MVP performance. "It's great having him on your side."

No. 23 suited up for the other guys last night with his new lineup in tow, one he hopes will vault his defending conference championship team over Boston and Detroit (not to mention Toronto and Orlando, whose records are superior to that of the Cavaliers).

Although LeBron openly pined for (and did not receive) Jason Kidd, his consolation prize package wasn't too shabby. He got defensive depth up front in the form of Ben Wallace and Joe Smith, a healthy (finally) perimeter weapon in Wally Szczerbiak, who plans to make teams pay for doubling down on King James, and a versatile hybrid guard (another ex-Celtic, Delonte West) who should serve as an ideal backcourt complement to a star forward who likes to have the ball in his hands a lot. To get this, Cleveland surrendered, among others, the fragile Larry Hughes, Ira Newble, and the quirky Drew Gooden, who could score and grab rebounds but became known for exhibiting long stretches of defensive indiffer ence, and we're not talking about the kind when the guy steals second and the catcher elects not to throw.

Make no mistake: Cleveland is significantly better defensively, deeper up front, and therefore better equipped for the postseason. Asked if it was imperative that his team change its configuration before the trading deadline, James answered bluntly, "We had the same exact team that got swept in the Finals. I felt we needed a change."

LeBron has previously expressed his distaste with the national fascination with Boston, a team he has repeatedly slayed with Jordanesque numbers. In fact, he is the most lethal Celtic killer since Wilt Chamberlain used to lay lumber on Bill Russell and the Boys back in the early '60s.

In his previous nine games against Boston, James had averaged 35.4 points (on 51.2 percent shooting), 7.1 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. It should not startle you to learn that Cleveland was 8-1 in those games.

In fact, if LeBron had scored more than 30 last night, he would have surpassed Chamberlain as the player with the longest streak of 30-plus-point games against the Celtics in history.

He was well on his way to the milestone with 4:26 left in the second quarter when he followed up his missed 3-pointer with a layup in traffic and landed on Paul Pierce's foot. LeBron hopped up the sideline to midcourt, then hit the deck with a sprained right ankle. He limped to the locker room with 15 points.

The injury report duly noted that X-rays were negative, and his return was questionable.

Sure.

King James started the third quarter and needed just 14 seconds to knock down a perimeter jumper and cut Boston's lead to 47-42.

The Game was On, and the energy in the building was unmistakable.

That's because these games matter. Now, more than ever, the No. 1 seed in the East becomes the coveted prize. If Boston can hold its pole position, it likely means it will avoid playing Detroit or Cleveland until the conference finals - providing you subscribe to the theory the Cavaliers have what it takes to eclipse the Magic and Raptors, which I do.

That's why last night's game actually carried weight. What a wonderful concept - a regular-season game at the Garden in February that truly had ramifications.

"We're getting close to the playoffs," James noted. "Every game counts."

This game was won with spirited Celtics defense and balanced scoring. It was won, in part, because one sniper, Ray Allen, hit seven of his 10 shots, and another, Szczerbiak, missed 10 of his 13. It probably didn't help that Cleveland's superstar was hobbling, either, although he looked pretty fluid when he jammed the ball through on a teeth-rattling, fast-break slam late in the third quarter.

In the final frame, however, the two-headed defensive monster of Pierce and James Posey limited LeBron to two field goals.

Don't make the mistake of dismissing Cleveland based on what you saw. The Cavaliers' young shooter, Daniel Gibson, is still hurt. Anderson Varejao is still finding his sea legs after holding out to start the season. And the King's new court is still learning how to jell.

"I like them better," Rivers said. "They scare me as much as any team in the NBA. They did before the trade, and even more now.

"They know how to play around their star."

There has never been a season like this one, with so many major trades among so many major teams. The Lakers swung a deal that netted them Pau Gasol without having to deal Andrew Bynum, the Suns shook up their status quo and acquired Shaquille O'Neal, then Dallas plucked Kidd from New Jersey, thereby ruining LeBron's day.

"I'd like to think we started it last summer, and everyone else followed suit," said Rivers. "I think it's a good thing . . . I think it's the way it should be.

"Everyone who has a chance is going for it."

That includes the teams on the parquet last night. James checked out with 26 points on 7-of-24 shooting, ending his 30-point streak against Boston and preserving a small sliver of Wilt's legacy.

Oh, and by the way, the King's team lost, 92-87. If you are a Celtics fan, you can be heartened this victory was secured even though Kevin Garnett is still treading carefully offensively after his prolonged layoff from an abdominal strain.

KG is a truly an NBA paradox: a superstar just trying to fit in.

LeBron, even with his new lineup, still enjoys no such luxury.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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