Obvious difference was a gray area
CLEVELAND — It was like the good old days. It was old-school basketball. It was old time rock ’n’ roll.
And then it was just . . .
The Celtics shocked the Cleveland Cavaliers for the better part of three quarters last night. Boston played lockdown defense, circa 2008, and marched to an 11-point lead in the middle of the third quarter.
Paced by their kid rocket — Rajon Rondo is the best guard in the playoffs at this hour — the Boston Graybeards jolted the 61-win Cavaliers and their fans. Clevelanders, accustomed to things going wrong in the postseason, wondered where the dominance went. It was only the first 30 minutes of the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but it was an awakening nonetheless. The Celtics remind ed Basketball America that they can beat any team on the planet. In any house.
And then the big lead evaporated faster than you could say “Rasheed Wallace.’’ The Celtics wasted a nice night of work, fizzling down the stretch, just as they did so many times in the 2009-10 season.
Cleveland 101, Boston 93. LeBron James led all scorers with 35 points. Game 2 is tomorrow night at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavaliers are 74-8 over the last two regular seasons.
“No moral victories,’’ scoffed Celtics captain Paul Pierce. “A loss is a loss.’’
The Cavaliers love playing at the Q. Mom LeBron sits in the front row on the baseline near the home bench and the scoreboard includes an unusual box entitled “The Diff.’’ For those who cannot count, The Diff informs fans how far ahead or behind the Cavs are at any juncture. At halftime last night, The Diff was minus-11 for the locals. Boston led, 54-43.
With six minutes to go in the third the Celtics were ahead, 69-58. The rest of the way it was Cleveland, 43-24. The final score represented the Cavs’ biggest lead. Had the game gone to a fifth quarter, it would have been a Cleveland blowout. The Celtics were done.
The Cavaliers have a center named Shaquille O’Neal, who at times looks like Joe Louis staggering against Rocky Marciano, but in the end it was the Celtics who looked worn down.
Pierce (39 minutes) scored 10 points in the first quarter, 3 points over the final three quarters. Kevin Garnett (season-high 38 minutes) scored 16 in the first three quarters, 2 in the fourth. Ray Allen (44 minutes) scored 14, but was blanked in the final quarter. That’s an aggregate 2 points from the ancient Big Three in the final 12 minutes.
It was the same story at the defensive end. The Celtics rotated beautifully and moved their feet in the first quarter, holding the Cavaliers to 30 percent shooting. But the longer the game went, the easier it was for the Cavaliers to score. James looked like a guy in his prime. The Celtics looked like guys past their prime.
Oh, and as for the aforementioned Wallace: ’Sheed is a sack of inner tubes. The guy who told us to wait for the big games did nothing once again. Wallace made one of five shots and had two rebounds in 13 minutes. In one of the more critical plays of the game, he was caught flat-footed under the basket and was stripped of the ball by Anderson Varejao. This is not going to get better. ’Sheed is making Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre look like good signings.
“We were winning because we were attacking,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “In the second half we went away from what we were supposed to do. I was really upset with our guys and the execution. In the second half, I thought we settled. We’re playing a good team. We knew they had a run in them. It happens.
“This is not going to be easy for either team.’’
The Celtics have made it particularly tough on themselves because they must win a road game to advance and last night was a golden opportunity. It was a game they should have won.
This is the last roundup for the old guard. The Celtics have six players born in the 1970s. On the list of most games by active players, the Celtics have four of the top 10. They are not going to have this chance next year or the year after. That’s why last night was such a waste.
But maybe they are just too old to play four great quarters on the road against a team as good as Cleveland.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist.