In a game where some of the top scorers in the National Basketball Association struggled to find the mark, the Boston Celtics proved they could defeat Cleveland even on a bad night.
Kevin Garnett scored 28 points to power the Celtics past the Cavaliers 76-72 on Tuesday in the opener of their Eastern Conference second-round playoff series.
Rajon Rondo added 15 points and Sam Cassell scored 13 points, 10 of them in the fourth quarter, as the Celtics, the NBA’s most winning team at 66-16, shut down NBA scoring champion LeBron James, who went 2-of-18 from the field.
“We’re trying to make him work as much as we can,” Garnett said. “For the most part it’s team defense. That’s how to win.”
Cleveland’s “King” James managed only 12 points, including 8-of-10 from the free throw line, with nine rebounds, nine assists and 10 turnovers. Lithuanian Zydrunas Ilgauskas scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead Cleveland.
“You’ve got to take your hat off to those guys. They came out in the second half very aggressive,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. “Our guys tried to execute and play the right way for 48 minutes. You have to give the Celtics’ defense credit because they did a great job. We were aggressive trying to get to the rim. We have to keep trying to be aggressive. That’s how it goes.”
Boston hit only 43 percent from the field, making 29-of-68 shots from the field, and made 21 turnovers. But the Celtics made it clear that they would smother James and force his teammates to beat them, if they could.
“The one thing he tried to do was attack the rim,” Brown said of James. “When he did, he didn’t get the calls. One thing about LeBron — he very seldom has a game like this. He’ll bounce back and play a terrific game in game two.”
While the Celtics blanketed James defensively, they also struggled to score themselves. Ray Allen played his first scoreless NBA game since his 1997 rookie season while Paul Pierce managed only four points on 2-of-14 shooting.
Pierce handled much of the defensive load against James, making him struggle for every opportunity.
“He finishes tough,” Pierce said. “I just try to keep him from the rim and getting easy opportunities.”
But the effort contributed to a poor scoring night from Pierce and with Allen unable to produce points as well, the Celtics needed the lift provided by veteran guard Cassell to outscore Cleveland.
“Paul came out and got two quick fouls and that took him out of his rhythm. He was getting shots. He just started forcing them,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “In Ray’s case, we just have to get him better shots.”
Garnett, hungry for his first NBA title, scored down the stretch to hold off the stubborn Cavaliers and improve Boston to 5-0 at home in the playoffs after they were pushed to seven games in round one by lowly Atlanta.
Garnett hit a jumper with 72 seconds to play to equalize at 70-70 and Cassell sank two free throws with 52.8 seconds remaining to put Boston ahead, only to have Ilgauskas tip-in a James miss to level the game once more.
Garnett answered with a drive to the hoop and a layin with 21.4 seconds to play to put Boston ahead for good. James drove to the hoop but missed a layup and James Posey grabbed the rebound, then hit two free throws to produce the final margin. James took a desperation 3-pointer but missed and the Celtics ran out the final seconds.