By Kevin Henkin
Steve Miller may be the Gangster of Love but the Boston Celtics have firmly established themselves as the Gangsters of Team Defense. In this order, it was defense, depth and determination that were the drivers behind Boston’s decisive Game 2 victory over Cleveland, 89-73.
As noted above, Boston’s defense was once again stifling, especially over the final 40 minutes of the game in which Cleveland scored only 52 points. Most notably as part of that defensive effort was the fact that LeBron James was held in check for the second straight game. He finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists, which isn’t a bad line for most of the other 359 players on NBA rosters. Throw in the 6 for 24 shooting and the 7 turnovers, however, and it adds up to another sub-par night for King James. Not reflected in the box score was the continued frustration exhibited by James in the face of constant help defense that prevented him from gaining access to the paint and forced him to resort to jumpers that continued to elude the inside of the rim.
The only Cavalier who achieved any kind of success on offense was Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who finished with 19 points but did most of his damage early by scoring 10 points in the first quarter when it was still a game. Otherwise, only Wally Szczerbiak scored in double figures for Cleveland, with 13 points on 4-11 from the field. Notably absent from the offensive flow for the Cavaliers were the point guards Delonte West and Boobie Gibson, who submitted a combined 5 points and 5 assists on 1-7 shooting with 3 turnovers. In total, the Cavaliers shot 35.6% for the game.
The utter lack of support from James’s teammates was brightly contrasted by the enormous contribution that Boston received from its bench. When Sam Cassell and James Posey entered the game with 2:49 left in the first, the proverbial light switch finally came on for Boston. Up until that point, the Celtics were losing 21-9 and looking flat on both ends of the court. Cassell instantly revived Boston’s stagnated offense by knocking down his first jumper and subsequently led the way to an 8-3 run to end the quarter.
Cassell’s final line of 3 assists and 9 points on 4-12 from the field doesn’t do justice to the enormous impact that he made in the first half of the game. He scored all 9 of his points during a stretch when his team desperately needed a hot hand. Especially during the second quarter, Cassell also answered some recent critics of his shoot-first style by aggressively finding teammates with some terrific passes.
The second quarter was highlighted by an emphatic breakaway dunk by Garnett that he followed up with an equally emphatic high five to bossman Danny Ainge standing in the crowd. Garnett’s sick behind-the-back pass to Leon Powe, a play truly reminiscent of Larry Bird, must also be mentioned. Also worthy of note was that, throughout the remaining three quarters, multiple Celtics players diving hard for loose balls became a common sight.
Although Cassell cooled off in the second half, he handed off the baton to a suddenly revived Ray Allen, who finally found his stroke in the third quarter and helped stake Boston to a 20 plus point lead that they would hold onto for the remainder of the game.
Looking forward, Celtics fans have to cautiously wonder which version of their team will show up to play in Cleveland on Saturday. Regardless, it seems clear thus far that the Boston supporting cast runs deeper and better than Cleveland’s, which is bad news for a team with only one real go-to guy. Boston has also discovered some success in defending LeBron James in a way that so eluded the Detroit Pistons last spring. These two factors alone, as well as their held serve at home and remaining home court advantage, have the Celtics in apparent prime position moving forward.
In short: Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.