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Celtics 94, Cavaliers 85

Green light

Celtics put Cavs and James in rearview mirror

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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He sounded increasingly crazy every time he said it.

When the Celtics killed the momentum of a huge win with staggeringly confusing loss, coach Doc Rivers said, “I like this team.’’

When injuries derailed a 23-5 start and forced him to patch together lineups night to night, Rivers said, “We like who we are.’’

When the window on an era seemed to be shutting and when the Celtics looked like they couldn’t be further from a championship, sliding down to the fourth seed as the regular season ended, Rivers said, “I think we’re close.’’

“I know it sounds crazy,’’ Rivers said last night. “But I thought we were phenomenal in training camp. I thought we looked better in training camp than we did two years ago, quite honestly. As a team, I thought we were close, we started out great and then obviously we fell apart with injuries and all kinds of other issues, but you could see that everybody wanted to get back. It was tough the last three weeks of the season because we had to make a choice.’’

Rivers was more than transparent about his plan. He would bet the fate of the season on the hope that he could get the Celtics to the playoffs healthy.

“It was the only bet,’’ Rivers said. “That was the only way we’re going to be able to try to win this is by guys being healthy.’’

Facing the league’s best team, with the challenge of stifling the league’s best player, LeBron James, the Celtics were largely considered a long shot in these Eastern Conference semifinals. After overwhelming the Cavaliers in last night’s 94-85 series-clinching victory in Game 6, Rivers and the Celtics looked like the smartest people in TD Garden.

“The big thing with Doc, he just kept faith,’’ said Kendrick Perkins. “I know we ended the regular season on a bad note, but at the end of the day it starts over in the playoffs. We came together at the right time in the playoffs. All it takes is a couple of games to get your stride back and guys were locked in.’’

The Celtics executed early, piling pressure on James, who for 48 hours had to deal with speculation the homegrown superstar would be playing his final game for a city he gave a face to the past seven years.

The urgency was there — the first time James touched the ball, he made a beeline for the rim, flushing the ball with two hands and hanging on the rim for emphasis. The aggressiveness was there, too — James took eight of Cleveland’s first 20 shots, at times trying to sneak into the paint for easier looks. But James’s jumper was still missing.

James had taken four perimeter shots through the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter, clanging all of them. Then he pulled up from 25 feet.

Swish. He came down again and pulled up from the same distance.

Swish.

With two shots, a Cleveland team that had to claw just to stay in the game suddenly had its first ounce of momentum.

Then Paul Pierce (13 points), who had hit a pair of third-quarter 3-pointers that were like a right-left combo to the Cavs’ chest, drilled one from 25 feet with 7:55 left in the fourth, leaving Cleveland coach Mike Brown with no choice but to call a timeout.

Momentum killed.

James said during the regular season that the Celtics didn’t look like a bad team, only a bored one.

“They’ve got a lot of veteran players,’’ James said. “They have a lot of playoff experience and it worked for them.’’

“Not one time in our locker room had we talked about their age or anything like that,’’ said Brown. “It’s a good team. Pretty much throughout the course of the year, they had guys injured at different times and that’s where their rhythm suffered during the course of the year. But they’re battle-tested and they came out this series and did a heck of a job.’’

Everything the Celtics did funneled through either Kevin Garnett (22 points, 12 rebounds) or Rajon Rondo (21 points, 12 assists). Garnett continued to toy with Antawn Jamison, who completely melted in the burning light of the postseason. The Celtics went up, 88-74, after Garnett threw down a dunk on a fast break. From there it was just a matter of time.

With the Orlando Magic rested and waiting, they couldn’t bask in the victory, but they could reflect.

Ray Allen looked back at the trade deadline, when the uncertainty surrounding the Celtics couldn’t have been higher.

“At the trade deadline, Doc addressed what was going on in the media,’’ Allen said. “He just told us as a team, he likes this team. He likes who we are with this team. So we always as a team liked who we were. We didn’t worry about, we lost this game, we lost that game. As a team we were still a very formidable team and there were a lot of teams around the league playoff-wise that were afraid of us come playoff time. Rightfully so. Cleveland, we sent them home.’’

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