Wednesday October 28th, 2009

The NBA's best rivalry needed this. The home team had won the last 16 meetings before the visiting Celtics broke that spell Tuesday with an opening night 95-89 win over the Cavaliers (RECAP | BOX SCORE). After two years spent bear-hugging each other like wrestlers, a new dynamic has momentarily separated them.

At issue is Cleveland's recast style, based not only on the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal and two other newcomers but also the absence of troubled Delonte West, who was on the sideline while Ray Allen (16 points) was beating his defenders off the dribble or downcourt for threes in transition. The Celtics came into this game with the advantage of having fewer new parts to integrate, with Rasheed Wallace (12 points) and Marquis Daniels (7 points and 2 assists) fitting in as snugly off the bench as anticipated.

It would be a mistake to make too much of one result; but it would also be wrong to ignore the advantage the Celtics have seized toward a potential tiebreaker in April. "It's great psychologically to go in here and get a win,'' said Paul Pierce, who led the Celtics with 23.

The acquisitions of Rasheed and Shaq promise to elevate a rivalry that has no peer in the NBA. As much as everyone refers nostalgically to the age-old meetings of the Celtics and the Lakers, their disagreements come along twice a year apart from the occasional NBA Finals; and while Lakers-vs.-Spurs is often important it tends to fall short of creating the necessary emotional tension. That leaves the Celtics and Cavs to create a feud important enough to crowd both lockerrooms with reporters here Tuesday in the pregame hour, like a playoff game in May.

Pierce recognized the impact O'Neal had made. "You know how excited y'all get when Shaq comes to town,'' he said, sitting at his locker near the door of the visitors dressing room as the press wandered in and out.

"It's true,'' I admitted. "We just can't help ourselves.''

Across the room Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo was pulling on his jersey. "I don't think I've ever won in Cleveland my whole career,'' he said.

True enough: The Celtics had lost 11 straight here. I mentioned that some of them had been close losses.

"And some blowouts too,'' he answered quickly, as if he needed to put more pressure on himself.

The short of it is that this was more important than an opening night in Memphis or Philadelphia. The Cavs began the game playing like the younger and livelier team while hitting six of their first seven shots on their way to a 21-7 lead. But they have too many loose parts to tighten so early in the season, and by the second quarter the Celtics bench was ratcheting the defense to help set up a 51-45 Celtics lead by halftime.

LeBron James was typically spectacular with 38 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists to go with four blocks, including two that snuffed out Celtic breakaways (in the opening quarter he cleanly pinned a Rondo dunk against the glass as if upon a ladder putting up decorations). But too often the offense degraded into James needing to go one-on-one to beat the shot clock. "They took us out of a lot of our sets,'' he said of the Celtics.

There were several noticeable differences since last year. Both Rondo and Anderson Varejao looked much smoother shooting the ball, a sign of how hard both worked over the summer. More obvious was the presence of Shaq, who in the opening minute came out to set a high pick and obliviously shouldered Kevin Garnett (13 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks in 33 minutes) almost off his feet. Later when KG went up with the ball high he was met again by Shaq, who wrapped both arms around the ball and incidentally Garnett's head, before he slid hard onto his back. But from that and all other predicaments Garnett recovered instantly, a promising sign that he has recovered from his knee injury that cost Boston a chance at defending its championship last year. "Physically I'm OK,'' said Garnett. "I'd like to be better, and during the course of the season I'm sure I will be.''

Midway through the third the Celtics were up 62-47 and shooting 55.3 percent. Their efficiency dwindled to 44.4 percent overall by game's end, and so did the lead. James had brought the struggling Cavs within 87-83 when Garnett set an extremely high pick enabling Pierce to weave around LeBron and Shaq on his way to a layup with 1:03 remaining. Moments later Pierce canned a fallaway jumper over Varejao to rebuild the Celtics lead to 8.

The Cavs have some work to do. Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas did not look good on the floor together, and their bench was outscored 26-10. Most important, perhaps, is that they'll miss the versatility of West's aggressiveness at both ends of the floor as well as his playmaking. But they are the younger team, and as the year wears on they'll certainly grow better while the Celtics may look older.

Or, more likely, the Celtics will also improve from this night as Garnett grows more comfortable -- he missed an uncontested dunk, apparently because he wasn't quite as high off the floor as he will be later in the year -- and Glen (Big Baby) Davis recovers from thumb surgery and the vise of their defense tightens. "I told them we have to be better than we played today,'' said Doc Rivers.

The Celtics coach was late coming out of his lockerroom after the win. "We were in there watching the ring ceremony,'' he said of TNT's coverage of the Lakers' opening-night championship celebration in Los Angeles. But his players didn't want to end a good night on such a bad memory. "They told me to turn it off,'' said Rivers. "No one wanted to watch it.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.