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Cavaliers 124, Celtics 95

Blown opportunity

James, Cavaliers pound away at Celtics and regain home-court advantage

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 8, 2010

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The Celtics knew LeBron James was coming.

If there was a warning sign, it came after Boston’s Game 2 win in Cleveland. Cavaliers coach Mike Brown could barely hold the smoke from escaping his ears he was fuming so badly. James couldn’t have been calmer.

“I knew how important the next game was,’’ he said. “I know how important the whole series is.’’

The Celtics tried to brace themselves in the three off days.

Coach Doc Rivers said, “We told our guys, ‘You know he’s going to grab the ball and attack all game.’ ’’

The train was barreling down the tunnel, the glow from the light growing closer and closer. The Celtics could not do anything to keep from being run over, and they were the ones who tied themselves to the tracks.

James’s 38-point, 8-rebound, 7-assist assault flattened the Celtics in a wire-to-wire 124-95 beating, the Celtics’ worst loss in playoff history. The Celtics are down, two games to one, needing to salvage a split at TD Garden with Game 4 tomorrow.

“You’ve got to know that the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to come out here with all the urgency in the world,’’ said Paul Pierce. “It was embarrassing to tell you the truth. It’s embarrassing when you lose at home like that.’

From the time he swooped in for a reverse layup to make it 8-2 in the first quarter, James cashed in from wherever he wanted. Fadeaways from 18 feet. Pull-ups from 19 and 22 feet. He twisted around the rim and went 180 degrees for a dunk that made it 34-14 in the first quarter as the Cavaliers beat the Celtics until their offense went numb. When Michael Finley hit a 3-pointer in the second quarter that seemed to snap the Celtics out of their daze, James answered with a 25-foot hush-up three that knocked them right back into that stupor.

The Celtics’ defense wasn’t an obstacle.

“I didn’t think we gave [James] any resistance,’’ Rivers said. “He was playing H-O-R-S-E.’’

James went on a 21-point first-quarter scoring spree, while the Celtics’ offense stood frozen. Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett were a collective 2 for 10 in the quarter. The Celtics fell into a 36-17 hole.

“I think we just let our guard down,’’ said Pierce. “They took the fight to us early and we didn’t respond.’’

For teams that pride themselves on defense, their performances were polar opposites. The Celtics went ages between stops. The Cavaliers shot 59.5 percent.

With James clamping down on Pierce (who missed his first six shots and finished 4-for-15 shooting with 11 points) and Anthony Parker stretching the floor to pick up Rajon Rondo (18 points on 9-for-17 shooting), the Celtics buried themselves in bricks, letting poor offense, and ever-mounting whistles, affect their defense.

“LeBron James came out, he attacked early,’’ said Kendrick Perkins. “He got them going. He got it done, that’s what a leader’s supposed to do. They were on point all night on the defensive end. They were talking, communicating; they knew what they were going to do. Everybody was on the same page.’’

The Celtics weren’t in the same book.

“Us on the other hand, lack of focus, guys weren’t in the right spots — defensively and offensively. I just think they outworked us tonight,’’ Perkins said.

The thought was James was a one-man army, but Antawn Jamison (20 points, 12 rebounds), Shaquille O’Neal (12 points, 9 rebounds), and Delonte West (14 points) gave James the help he needed after leaving him stranded in Game 2.

Meanwhile, 6:50 into the second quarter, Rondo was the only Celtic with more than one field goal. Pierce didn’t knock down his first shot until 5:59 left in the second. Allen couldn’t find a good look, taking his first 3-pointer in the third quarter. Garnett scored 19 points, but took only two shots in the first quarter as the Celtics were sinking.

Being outrebounded (45-30) was disappointing for the Celtics. So was seeing the Cavaliers stampede the paint (50 points), while the Celtics had a hard time leaving a footprint there (just 32). But being beaten at their own game — James balling their defense up and throwing it at them — is what will stick.

“We hang our hat on our defense,’’ Pierce said. “The guys in there have a lot of pride. You can see it in their faces. A lot of guys were mad. But you don’t get this game back.’’

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