BOSTON -- One by one members of the Celtics came to the podium after Sunday's game and exhaled a long sigh of relief.
"We needed this game," said Kevin Garnett.
"We had to get this win," said coach Doc Rivers.
The Celtics weren't ready to celebrate their 117-113 win over Cleveland, and for good reason. Because while Boston will chalk this one up in the win column, it was hardly an impressive performance against a Cavaliers team that easily erased a 22-point deficit to nearly steal a victory.
Here are five things we learned on Sunday:
1. If Boston is going to make one more run in the playoffs, it needs to shore up its defense.
Cleveland's coaching staff -- which was without Mike Brown after he was ejected in the third quarter -- wasn't drawing up complicated sets during the team's second-half comeback. The Cavaliers entire playbook for the final 24 minutes was essentially 'LeBron, go to the rim and make something happen.' Boston though, had no answer as Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Tony Allen took turns getting bullied by James. James is the reigning and soon-to-be MVP, so that's not a criticism. But the Celtics needed to find a way to get the ball out of his hands in the second half and couldn't do it, allowing James to dump 32 points on them over the final two quarters. For the game, the Cavs shot 51.3 percent, the third straight opponent to shoot 50-plus percent against Boston.
2. This was the Ray Allen Boston needs to see.
Two days after putting up one of his worst games of the season (a six-foul, five-points-in-16-minute clunker against Houston), Allen submitted one of his finest, scoring 33 points in 42 brilliant minutes. No one needed a breakout game more than Allen, who had only seven points (on 2-for-9 shooting) in Wednesday's loss to San Antonio. Allen's ability to make shots is, obviously, a key component to Boston's success. When Allen is stretching the floor like he did Sunday, it opens up the low post for Kevin Garnett (19 points) and creates wider lanes for Paul Pierce (16).
"We had a long talk yesterday about not dancing with the ball but attacking with the ball," said Rivers. "He was terrific. I like what he's doing. Catch, shoot. Catch, attack."
3. Boston won a championship two years ago. Sometimes, they don't act like it.
"Boston talks more [expletive] than any team in the league," was the text message from an NBA scout that came in shortly after the final buzzer. Hard to argue that today. It seemed everywhere you looked Sunday, a Celtic was talking. Rasheed Wallace picked up a technical foul in the third and RajonRondo was hit with one during the fourth. With the Celtics clinging to a four-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Tony Allen started yapping at James and charged toward him during a break (note to Allen: when a guy has 42 points, many on you, shut up). The referees quickly broke it up but they would have been justified hitting Allen with a costly tech. Rivers has been begging his team for years to play with composure in the fourth quarter and the Celtics looked devoid of it.
"It's something we have to learn from," said Pierce. "There are going to be a lot of tight games in the playoffs. I mean, [if] we are going to get technicals and riled up, let's do it early in the game than late. But, even then, if it comes down to one- or two-point games, that could be the difference.
4. The Celtics can't keep losing the battle of the boards.
Boston is the second-worst rebounding team in the league this season and were once again beaten on the glass (42-38, including 22-17 in the second half) by a Cavaliers team playing without Anderson Varejao and Shaquille O'Neal. The über-active Antawn Jamison (ten rebounds) and J.J. Hickson (11) led the charge as they outworked Boston's stationary bigs. Saying Boston has rebounding problems isn't a revelation but, with a host of hyperactive big men looming in the playoffs (Al Horford, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, among others), the Celtics have to find a way to be more competitive on the glass.
5. LeBron James has started a war of words ... with Jerry Colangelo.
Before the game, James reacted to comments Colangelo, the chairman of USA Basketball, made to Yahoo! Sports, telling the Web site there would be "no free passes" for players who skipped the 2010 world championships without a legitimate reason. Colangelo went on to say that any player who didn't travel to Turkey jeopardize their spot in the 2012 Olympics.
"There's a lot that goes on with being a professional athlete other than just basketball," James said. "I think everyone in the USA knows what type of commitment these guys have made, including myself, since 2003. I'm not trying to bash Jerry or anything like that because he's a good guy and I respect him. I don't respect [what he said] because of the commitment we've all given to the USA."
James isn't the first player to express reservations about competing in Turkey this summer, but he has the highest profile. Both sides have valid arguments: Colangelo wants to make sure the U.S. doesn't slip back to mediocrity on the world stage and James wants some semblance of a life after playing ten months of basketball. It will be interesting to see how Colangelo responds if James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all bow out this summer and, as expected, announce their desire to play in the '12 Olympics.