Late fade puts Celtics in hole
CLEVELAND — The fouls were like ammunition.
If they were to be the Celtics’ primary weapon against the soon-to-be-crowned MVP LeBron James and the army assembled around him, then Rivers wanted his team to use them until they burned out.
By halftime of their Eastern Conference semifinal opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics had already drawn nearly twice as many fouls (15 to 8) as the hosts. But the results made it worthwhile.
The Cavaliers didn’t so much score 20 first-quarter points as they scraped them together, clanging 14 of their first 20 shots. Admittedly tentative because of a bad elbow, James missed four of his first five.
Boston built its lead as high as 11 points on the strength of its defense, and when the Celtics went into the locker room up, 54-43, at the half, Celtics coach Doc Rivers told his team, “I don’t care if everybody fouls out by the third quarter — don’t change.’’
“We were winning the game because we were attacking,’’ Rivers said. “We had enough guys.’’
That defense, however, came with a price, and the Celtics paid for it one foul at a time in their 101-93 Game 1 loss.
The fouls and the free throws would catch up with the Celtics first. The Cavaliers would follow shortly thereafter.
Glen Davis piled up four fouls before the break. Paul Pierce and Rasheed Wallace both had three. The Cavaliers let the Celtics off the hook, though, going 10 of 17 from the stripe in the first half. But they made the Celtics pay in the second, not only cashing in on those opportunities at the line (11 of 14), but also taking advantage of a defense that had become gun-shy because of all the fouls.
“[The fouls] had an impact, but not that big,’’ said Rivers. “It was us. Maybe, mentally, guys were worried about fouls.’’
The same defense that hounded the Cavaliers in the first quarter, holding them to 30 percent shooting, was almost paralyzed in the second half, too tentative to do the things that had put Boston in front.
“I told Baby, ‘I don’t care if you foul out in the first half. I don’t care, but you have to be an energy guy,’ ’’ Rivers said. “He went away from being an energy guy because he was so concerned about his fouls. I thought overall in the second half we just went away from what we were supposed to do.’’
Cleveland seemed to sense the Celtics’ hesitance and preyed on it. James scored 18 of his game-high 35 points after the break. Mo Williams that broke the Celtics’ backs, scoring 16 of his 20 points in the third quarter, including a fast-break dunk where he streaked down the floor and flushed it one-handed with Pierce in his wake. It was the first of four straight baskets he would score for the Cavs.
“You knew they had a run in them. It happens,’’ said Rivers. “I didn’t think we absorbed the run very well . . . I thought that stretch changed the game.’’
James punctuated the third by driving past Pierce and launching a tough shot over another defender to put the Cavaliers up, 79-78. At the time of the basket, Pierce had three fouls.
“I wasn’t really as aggressive as I wanted to be in the third, but like Doc said, I can’t really worry about that stuff,’’ said Pierce. “Just continue to play. Be aggressive on both ends of the court and see what happens.’’
The Celtics finished with 25 fouls to Cleveland’s 17, and if Rivers had his way, the Celtics would have had more.
“I just thought we went away from our game plan,’’ said Rivers. “We didn’t sustain 48 minutes of focus. Give them credit, they turned the heat up and we didn’t handle it very well.’’
The Cavaliers outscored the Celtics, 22-15, in the fourth, making another Boston lead disappear as they had three times during the regular season.
“It’s over with now,’’ Rajon Rondo said. “We definitely lost an opportunity to sneak a game . . . But it’s over with and we have to move on.’’