Barely 24 hours after returning from a long Western trip, the weary Celtics gutted out a key conference victory last night.
In its first home game in two weeks, Boston defeated the new-look Cavaliers, 92-87, in front of a sellout crowd at TD Banknorth Garden. The Celtics (44-12) won their sixth straight at home and third straight overall. The Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers (32-26) and Celtics, who could meet in the postseason, split the four-game season series.
"I knew it coming into the building," said Celtics guard Ray Allen, who scored 22 points, including three 3-pointers. "I knew before leaving LA what it was going to be like to fly home after six hours and have a game the next day. [Tuesday] was a travel day and it was over the minute we landed. Everybody in the league deals with that.
"We just have to be mature about it, step up to the plate. Once you get in the building, it's all the same. I've always said the NBA is not meant for somebody to go undefeated. But you try to win your fair share of games and games that other teams think you shouldn't win."
The Celtics returned from a 2-3 trip Tuesday at around 6 p.m. To give his players extra rest, coach Doc Rivers canceled the shootaround yesterday morning and had a walkthrough prior to the game. Working in the Celtics' favor, however, Cleveland was coming off a 105-102 loss at Milwaukee Tuesday.
"When you come back home that first game, it's one of the toughest games," said Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who had 18 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals. "It was just that. I thought our defense fueled us, gave us energy, and made us talkative. That was the difference. We made our shots when we had to.
Said Rivers: "We didn't play great and they didn't either. They probably got in at 3 in the morning after playing the game in Milwaukee."
Cavaliers star LeBron James, who entered the game averaging a league-best 30.2 points per game, scored 26, missing 17 of 24 shots, including 5 of 6 3-point attempts, in 39 minutes. He left the game in the second quarter after spraining his right ankle when he landed on Paul Pierce's foot. James returned for the second half after X-rays proved negative, but he missed 11 of 15 shots after the break.
"I've had my share of ankle injuries. The first thing I thought was, not again, not another one to go down for our team," James said. "We have been hit with the injury bug, the cold bug, guys have been walking around here sick and injured. I didn't want to go down."
Cleveland's Mike Brown was ejected for the first time in his coaching career with 41 seconds left in the third quarter after going onto the floor and needing to be restrained by his assistants while arguing a call.
The Cavaliers acquired forward-center Ben Wallace, ex-Celtics Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak, and forward Joe Smith prior to the trading deadline. And prior to the game, there were a lot of smiles in the Cleveland locker room, the new Cavaliers happy to get out of their previous situations.
"Coming from not playing at all [in Seattle] to being the starting [point guard] over here on a championship-caliber team, it definitely wants to make you put your all out on the floor and show this franchise that they made a good decision taking a chance on me," said West, who finished with 20 points and five rebounds in 36 minutes.
Said Szczerbiak, who had 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting: "I'm not shooting great since I got here because I'm not used to being so wide open."
In making its moves, Cleveland dealt forward Drew Gooden and guard Larry Hughes to the Bulls. Celtic Scot Pollard, who played with the Cavaliers last season when they won the Eastern Conference title, did not agree with the moves.
"I know Ben Wallace. I know what he does," said Pollard. "And to me, I wouldn't have given up Drew Gooden for what Ben Wallace does. It's so much more money [with Wallace], and you're locked into a $60 million contract. I just think they gave up too much to get Ben Wallace. Nothing against Ben Wallace, but knowing Cleveland, the team was working well enough."
The Celtics held a 47-40 halftime lead after shooting 54.3 percent and limiting Cleveland to 36.8 percent. Boston went up, 84-68, on a Rajon Rondo lay-in with 5:11 remaining, and held on from there.
"We had a letdown here and there," Garnett said. "They made a run. But we cut it very short. When we were aggressive, we looked great, and when we weren't, we were bad.
"The first game back home after a big road trip like that, that always seems to be the toughest. But we got through it."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com