Boston 120, at Cleveland 88 (Boston leads series 3-2)
Offensive Ratings: Boston 130.3, Cleveland 98.6
I really don't quite know where to begin with this one. In sum, Phoenix's four-game sweep of San Antonio might have been more shocking, but none of the individual outcomes in that series were all that out of the ordinary. Given the situation, the two teams involved and the lopsidedness of the final score, this was the most surprising game of the playoffs to date. I'm not sure I can remember many more stunning in the last decade, if not longer.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who entered Tuesday's Game Five as the favorites to win this series and arguably the league's best team, looked positively hapless and helpless against a Boston Celtics team weeks--if not days--removed from being considered too old to be a serious threat in this postseason.
Those perceptions began to shift during the second quarter, when the Celtics ripped off a 16-0 run to turn what had been a comfortable early lead for the Cavaliers completely around. The culprit was a scoreless streak that extended 10 possessions over more than six minutes.
As it turned out, everyone who focused on the adjustments Cleveland would need to make in terms of defending Rajon Rondo (guilty) overlooked the critical fact that the Cavaliers' offense, not their defense, let them down in Game Four. I'm still not sure how much credit is due to the Boston defense as compared to blame due the Cavaliers, but Cleveland has now been held below a point per possession two consecutive games and three times in the five-game series. Considering the Cavaliers were better on offense than the Celtics were on defense during the regular season, that certainly qualifies as a surprise.
When Cleveland has been on at the offensive end, it has been almost entirely due to the heroics of LeBron James, especially in Game Three. But Game Five found James severely lacking. Boston again did an excellent job of denying James easy baskets, fouling him rather than allowing him to score in the paint. From the perimeter, however, James got decent looks. He was simply as cold as can be in a crucial game, making just one shot in 11 attempts outside the paint.
The Cavaliers appeared to spend much of the second half waiting for James to take over the game, but he was simply unequal to the task, and his teammates had few other answers. Shaquille O'Neal was again efficient in the paint, scoring 21 points on 15 shooting possessions, and Anthony Parker scored 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Everyone else struggled, including marquee trade-deadline acquisition Antawn Jamison (nine points on 4-of-10 shooting) and Mo Williams (nine points on nine shooting possessions).
Mike Brown didn't seem to have any solutions from the sidelines either. I'm not the world's biggest J.J. Hickson fan, but it is baffling that Hickson, a source of instant offense off the bench, did not enter the game until the final four minutes. Daniel Gibson got extended run at the point in place of Delonte West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas played at center; that was the extent of Brown's second-half creativity. His charges responded with relatively little urgency as the game slipped away. While this wasn't a must-win for Cleveland, it was surely a "should-win," and the Cavaliers did not approach it that way.
Let us be careful not to spend so much time criticizing Cleveland at the expense of crediting the Celtics. I'm not entirely sure where this Boston team hid during the final four months of the regular season, but the Celtics can beat anyone in the league anywhere the way they played Tuesday night. The first half was notable for the return of the Big Three. With the Cavaliers focusing their defensive efforts on Rondo, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce offered a reminder they can play a little ball, all of them scoring double-figures.
It was Garnett and Pierce who carried Boston during the second-quarter surge, which was notable because it did not include Rondo. The Celtics have generally had a very tough time with Rondo on the bench during the postseason (they're -28 without him, per BasketballValue.com), but he was watching from the bench as the veterans and Tony Allen changed the game and the series.
Ray Allen subsequently heated up from beyond the arc, and he and Rondo owned the third quarter. Cleveland briefly moved Parker to Allen from Rondo, allowing the Boston point guard to run wild against defensive liability Williams. In some ways, Rondo's controlled Game Five performance was as much a sign of maturity as his takeover of Game Four. He picked his spots, deferring to his teammates early and finding the perfect time to exert his will on the game. Rondo and Allen were both highly efficient, combining for 41 points on 27 shooting possessions. It didn't hurt that Allen was getting his points three at a time, knocking down six triples.
Pierce wasn't quite as good as his triple-crown stats (21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists) made it appear, as he needed 21 shot attempts and a trip to the free throw line to get there. Nonetheless, it was an encouraging performance given the way Pierce has struggled in this series.
Lastly, some kudos to the Celtics' bench. Tony Allen has been outstanding in this series, and Glen Davis came through with a strong performance in the second half, scoring 15 points and making seven free throws in 10 attempts.
Lest we write Cleveland off prematurely, we only need to go back to Games Three and Four of this series to see how quickly things can turn around. Then, a Cavaliers series win seemed as much a fait accompli as their early departures does now. The question is, will Cleveland be able to win without a virtuoso performance from James? And is he capable of providing that right now? After Game Five, the Cavaliers are left with more questions than answers.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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