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Cavaliers 104, Celtics 93

Lack of effort means trying times for Celtics

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 15, 2010

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CLEVELAND — There was a time when the Cavaliers measured themselves against the Celtics. LeBron James and Co. were the fourth seed that took the top-seeded Celtics, a 66-win, championship-bound buzzsaw, to seven games in a playoff series in 2008.

In two short years, the roles have reversed.

Anointed by everyone from Nike to the NBA’s marketing department as the Eastern Conference’s lock for the Finals, Cleveland is the top team in the league, having ripped off winning streaks of five, six, seven, and 13 games — triumphing with and without James.

The Celtics entered yesterday’s game nine games behind the Cavaliers, and were the fourth seed themselves. To get to back to the Finals, they’ll likely have to get through the Cavaliers, and whether they want to or not, they find themselves wondering how they measure up.

Yesterday, after the Celtics took their second loss to the Cavaliers in just three weeks, the dif ference between the teams wasn’t the monster-sized center Cleveland added in Shaquille O’Neal (at home nursing a surgically-repaired thumb), it wasn’t the shooting they added in Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, and it wasn’t even James and his 30-point, 8-rebound, 7-assist performance.

“The glaring difference,’’ said Boston’s Ray Allen, echoing everyone’s thoughts, “was just their effort.’’

Cleveland outscored the Celtics, 27-10, on second-chance points. And as he laid out for loose balls, tipped up shots to keep possessions alive, and slipped past defenders to score baskets, Anderson Varejao was a curly-haired metaphor for the things the Celtics lacked.

It was a 16-16 game when Varejao stepped on the floor in the first quarter. By the time he left, he had pulled down six rebounds (three offensive), scored 15 points (slipping behind Kevin Garnett for 2 of them and popping away from Garnett for 2 more), and thoroughly annoyed the Celtics.

“The only way to stop him is being more physical,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “That was the plan coming into the game, but we never got a body on him.’’

Varejao’s 17-point, 10-rebound performance wasn’t prettier than the 20 points Allen scored but it was effective.

“Regardless of what his stats look like, he’s giving himself up,’’ said Allen. “Yeah, LeBron’s getting all the press and the hype and scoring the points, but he’s giving himself up.’’

Varejao did the things the Celtics have spent weeks trying to motivate themselves to do consistently.

They made pushes, tying it at 68 on an Allen 3-pointer with 5:14 left in the third quarter. But they went the last 2:05 of the period without a basket and didn’t score again until 6:56 remained in the fourth on a jump hook by Garnett (18 points, seven rebounds). By then, it was a 15-point game, and the Cavaliers were just lowering the coffin.

Neither team shot the ball well (Cavaliers 41.3 percent, Celtics 40), but Cleveland chased down the rebounds (51-43), swatted away shots (7-2), and forced turnovers (11-8), winning the battles that could have gone either way.

“The 50-50 is a big game for us,’’ said Glen Davis (4 points, three rebounds). “We’ve got to win the 50-50 game. No matter who’s on the floor . . . we’ve got to get dirty, we’ve got to give energy and make a better effort to close out quarters to close out games.

“In order to get back to where we want to go — and that’s win a championship — we need to be an all-around team.’’

Center Kendrick Perkins didn’t even feel comfortable trying to measure his team against the Cavaliers, because the effort, he said, wasn’t there yesterday or Feb. 25 when Cleveland came into the Garden and dealt the Celtics a 108-88 loss.

“I don’t really know where we’re at because we haven’t played them with our best game yet,’’ Perkins said. “If they were to beat us playing Celtic ball, where at least we’re playing as hard as we can, it would have been different. But I don’t think we went as hard as we should have.’’

As plain as it was to see how far apart the teams might be, Rivers said there were points when he could see how close his team was to breaking through.

“Our goal is to get us at our peak when the playoffs start and see where we are at, but we’ve got to get there and work hard,’’ Rivers said. “We’ve have a lot of work to do.’’

Exactly how much time they have left is another question.

“Every game we play from here out is a building block,’’ Garnett said. “From what I was taught, from Day 1 . . . being able to play in this league, it’s that right after the All-Star Game, that’s when you start to build the blocks up. So, [it] should have been like that.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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