It was midway through the second quarter of Game Five when I came to an abrupt realization: I was feeling extremely calm, collected, and—most of all—confident.
Confident as the Cavs defense continued to smother the Celtics. Confident as the ball moved around the court on offense. Confident as LeBron James drove and dished and shot as well as he possibly could.
Could they be turning the corner? I thought after James’ nifty little step-back jumper gave the team a 14-point lead. Are they really doing this?
Reality flattened me like a 98-mile-per-hour fastball careening toward my head. And credit Rajon Rondo—plus numerous Cavs mental and physical errors—for bringing that about.
Rondo nailed two three-pointers, also assisting two other baskets, to spark a 14-3 Celtics run over the final three-and-a-half minutes of the second quarter. The Cavs had dared him all series to take those shots; he did, and tonight he made them.
Kevin Garnett continued to show his range on outside jumpers and Paul Pierce shook off a sluggish start—forcing shot after shot—and hit some big free throws down the stretch.
The Celtics also hammered Cleveland on the boards, claiming a 38-30 advantage overall and—most importantly—12-7 on the offensive glass. The Cavs thrive on offensive rebounds, and keeping the other team away from the offensive glass. But tonight, collectively, Cleveland’s group of post players were outworked, outhustled, outplayed, and LeBron only grabbed three rebounds himself.
(Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been a non-factor for two games in a row. I don't like that one bit. Not at all.)
The Cavs also shot themselves in the foot with their woes at the free-throw line. It’s one thing to get to the line; it’s another to actually punish the opponent by sinking them. Shooting 68 percent from the line and missing 13 free throws isn’t going to cut it, especially not on the road.
In particular, the Cavs shot just 3-for-8 from the line in what proved to be the decisive third quarter. With the offensive quagmire, you have to convert on a higher percentage to keep yourself in the game. By missing five-of-eight, the Cavs went from “facing a moderate deficit” at the end of the quarter to “barely holding on by a thread.”
(I don’t know what’s more inept in Cleveland right now: the Cavs offense on the road or the Indians offense, period. Can the Browns let Rob Chudzinski help the other teams out?)
Sixteen turnovers also spelled trouble for the Cavs. It wasn’t necessarily the number, but just how they came about. Three shot-clock violations—yikes. Two terrible miscues to start the second half—Delonte West slipping on the first possession and throwing a terrible pass, followed by an awful pass from LeBron—just gave Boston five free points. Inexcusable mistakes at this point in the season.
Miraculously, the Cavs nearly rallied from an 11-point deficit in the final three-and-a-half minutes. If you’re a Celtics fan, you have to be absolutely horrified at your team’s execution down the stretch. The closing minutes reminded me of a college game, and there’s no doubt in my mind that if Wally Szczerbiak hit that trey (which would have cut the deficit to three with about 1:30 left) that the Cavs would have won the game.
Another point for concern for Celtics fans: the Cavs could have legitimately won all three of these games in Boston. Game 1 was, well, awful, but still there for the taking. In Game Two, the Cavs blew a 12-point lead. And tonight, they blew a 14-point lead.
My point is, the Cavs (and potentially the Pistons and whatever Western Conference team emerges) aren’t the Atlanta Hawks. Real teams aren’t scared of playing in the TD Banknorth Dunkin’ Donuts Liberty Mutual Garden. This series could be over.
Alright. Enough racking my brain for tonight. At least the Indians won. And at least there’s about a 97.2 percent chance that the Cavs will have one more shot to crack the Celtics in Boston.