Saturday, March 7, 2009

Analysis: Pierce, Celtics make statement against Cavs

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

BOSTON -- Despite having played a grueling 45 minutes in a game with postseason-level intensity, Boston forward Paul Pierce seemed full of energy as he hopped and skipped like a big kid toward the Celtics locker room Friday night.

"It's big," he said in a sing-song voice that echoed down the back hallway of the TD Banknorth Garden. "It's big. It's big."

You couldn't blame Pierce for showing a little postgame exuberance. In the race to the Eastern Conference's best record, Pierce and the defending champion Celtics got a leg up on their closest pursuers with an impressive 105-94 win (Box Score | Recap) over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston now leads the season series 2-1, with one game remaining on Sunday, April 12 in Cleveland.

Neither Boston nor Cleveland has won in the other's building since the Cavs stole a 107-104 victory in Boston on Jan. 3, 2007 -- a streak of 15 games including last year's seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal. A Celtics loss Friday wouldn't have been devastating, but it would have been daunting.

"You never say never," Pierce said, "but we would have been at a disadvantage, especially if we had a loss to them at home, it would've been their home court to lose.

"But we put ourselves right back into the race and hopefully we can carry this win over to Orlando [on Sunday] and continue playing well until the big fella gets back."

Pierce did his part to keep the Celtics swimming along without Kevin Garnett, who has missed seven games with a strained right knee.

By scoring 29 points, dishing nine assists and playing lockdown defense on LeBron James, Pierce's feat Friday recalled the performance he put together against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers last June to earn the 2008 Finals MVP.

Pierce wasn't the only Celtic to recapture a little of last year's Finals magic. Forward Leon Powe, who burst onto the scene last year with 21 points in Game 2, poured in 20 points and grabbed 11 boards. There's something about the bright lights that appeal to Powe.

"I usually play well on the ESPN-TNT games," the good-natured Powe said.

Despite the players and coaches protestations before Friday's game that this was just another game, it wasn't. You could tell from the opening quarter that this would be some madness in this March matchup.

The Cavs went hard at Pierce and Ray Allen with double teams. It worked, as the Celtics All-Stars scored just three first-quarter points between them -- all by Pierce.

But by doubling Pierce and Allen on the perimeter, the Cavs left the weak side open and the Celtics exploited it. Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby" Davis combined to score 14 of the Celtics' 21 first-quarter points on 7-for-11 shooting.

"Coach came up with a great game plan," Powe said. "They told us just before the game and shootaround how they go out and trap the ball so we just have to get to open areas."

While their bigs were roaming free through the paint, the Celtics made sure James' opportunities to get close to the rack were few and far between. The Cavs MVP candidate was frustrated by Pierce and a myriad of defenders throughout the game. While he was able to score 21 points, nine of them came from the free-throw line.

You could tell what kind of night James would have in the first quarter when he went up for a thunderous dunk, only to miss and have the ball ricochet to half court. James finished the game 5-for-15 from the field.

The Celtics weren't taking it easy on the other Cavs either, as Davis did his best Kevin McHale-on-Kurt Rambis impression in the third quarter, wrapping his arms around Anderson Varejao's head and knocking him to the floor. Davis was assessed a Flagrant 2 and was ejected.

"It happened so fast," Davis said. "You know me, I'm not trying to hurt anybody."

His coach concurred.

"I don't think the foul meant anything, honestly," Rivers said. "I like hard fouls, I just don't want them to go over. I didn't think it was a Flagrant 2, personally, but I come from a different generation."

If that's the case, the Powe is a throwback.

"I thought it was a good hard foul," Powe said, "a good playoff foul, but the refs thought otherwise."

Playoff foul? This was just another regular-season game, though. Right?

"We wanted this one real bad, I'm not going to deny it," said the Cavs' Wally Szczerbiak. "We felt it was an opportunity to steal one and win the series. We need to give them credit. They played well."

The Cavs are fortunate in one aspect. If this had been a loss during the playoffs, they would have a couple of days to read stories about "What's wrong with the Cavaliers?" Being that it is the regular season, the Cavs can concentrate on correcting their mistakes against Saturday's opponent, the Miami Heat.

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