Tuesday May 6th, 2008

BOSTON -- In the final two minutes of a first-round collapse averted, a Celtics fan raised the alarm for the next opponent.

"Bring on LeBron!'' he yelled Sunday as Boston was finishing its Game 7 win against the Hawks. "We want LeBron!''

Funny that no one joined in with him. Maybe he should be careful what he asks for. Maybe the rest of the audience wasn't looking forward to an extended series against the Eastern Conference's most productive star -- especially after seeing how easily Atlanta's Joe Johnson was able to threaten a first-round upset.

Though Johnson is a two-time All-Star, he didn't enter these playoffs with a reputation for dominating games from the backcourt. Yet that's what he managed to do with 20 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4, when his 35 points overall evened the series and ultimately forced the Celtics into a sleepless night before Game 7.

Now Boston must face James, who single-handedly drove Cleveland past Detroit in the conference finals a year ago. Never mind the Cavaliers' 14-13 finish to the regular season after Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith joined the team at the February trade deadline.

"One of the things I told my team is we're trying to catch them, it's not them trying to catch us,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "The [regular-season] record means nothing. That team went to the [NBA] Finals last year, so in our minds we're trying to catch them.''

In the three games he played against the Celtics this season -- winning two of them -- James averaged 32.3 points. Nothing unusual there for a player who averaged 30.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists during the season. Over his last three games in the Cavs' opening-round victory against the Wizards, James upped those numbers to 31.7, 11.7 and 9.0.

James is going to set the standard for this series, and the question is whether the Celtics can collectively outdo him.

Boston's weak performances in Atlanta may raise doubts heading into this series. The Celtics were the league's dominant team because of the balance struck by their new threesome of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Apart from the 32 points scored by Garnett in one of the blowout wins in Boston, none of the Celtics' All-Stars raised his level of play offensively during the series against the 37-win Hawks, who had no business forcing a Game 7 against the 65-win Celtics.

The Celtics' teamwork and balance were exhilarating to watch during the regular season, especially from a team assembled on short notice last summer. But the playoffs are going to require a different dynamic.

The best example comes from the Spurs, whose three stars have struck a terrific balance during their six seasons and three championships together. There is never any hint of selfishness or envy among them. But in their five-game series with Phoenix, Tim Duncan had 40 points in Game 1, Manu Ginobili had 29 in Game 2 and Tony Parker went for 41 in Game 3. It happens naturally that one or more of them will explode offensively.

For all of their success, the Celtics' stars still seem to be figuring out if or when they should take control of the game. Pierce, Garnett and Allen routinely seized command for their previous teams, but this season each has made an effort to limit himself for the greater good. As Rivers pointed out Sunday after Game 7, the Celtics are still getting used to playing together in the pressure of the playoffs. They need to figure it out soon.

During the regular season, Pierce led the Celtics with 19.6 points, followed by Garnett at 18.8 and Allen at 17.4. Their averages during the opening round were Pierce 18.0, Garnett 21.0 and Allen 16.1.

Their production is crucial to the outcome, because the Celtics are likely to keep struggling unless they get exceptional performances from their best players. James is sure to provide big numbers for Cleveland, and as Johnson occasionally demonstrated in the last week, one great performance can beat three good ones.

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