BOSTON -- The fingernail cut left a thin red line near LeBron James' left eye. It couldn't be seen from across the locker room. But he could feel it. And he was smiling.
"We don't like them, they don't like us," he said proudly. The NBA, added James after scoring 42 in a bloodthirsty 117-113 loss Sunday to the Celtics, "has lost a little bit of this. It's the same kind of thing I figured out last year when I walked off the court in Orlando. People was mad because I didn't shake hands. Why should I be happy? I'm not happy, I'm disgusted that I lost. That's what the game has lost -- it's lost what it had in the '80s and early '90s when teams really didn't like each other."
What was lost has been found, albeit in a less violent and more talk-is-cheap kind of way. Through six technical fouls and a 22-point comeback, two of the East's most imposing contenders revived -- for one game at least -- the league's most intense rivalry. "A lot of swearing on Easter," noted Boston coach Doc Rivers.
The result meant more to the winner. The Cavs were without Shaquille O'Neal and Anderson Varejao as well as coach Mike Brown, who was thrown out after point guard Mo Williams had earned a technical for arguing a non-call midway through the third quarter. The Celtics turned the ensuing free throws into an 83-62 advantage, and with 9:04 remaining overall, they were still up 99-85 after another technical was earned by James.
Then he responded angrily and ambidextrously with a 20-point quarter of spin moves and un-assailed drives that earned him a chance to steal the win on a transition three with four seconds to go, even though another drive to the basket likely would have forced overtime. "It's tough to question anything he does -- it felt like he scored their last 60 points in a row, and who didn't think that wasn't going in when he shot it?" said Rivers of James's last shot. "Clearly you wanted him to drive if you were them, and we clearly wanted him to shoot, because at least we've got a chance of (him) missing at the basket."
Yet James looked very much as if he had won something too. "What we did tonight is good for our team," he said. "I don't know what they're thinking about down there because I'm not in their locker room. But for us, we're not hanging our heads about this loss at all. At all."
That's because after procrastinating away the first three quarters -- and going into the fourth down 98-81 -- they still could have won. This loss taught the Cavs that they can look forward to the playoffs with confidence they can become the more reliable team under pressure.
After Ray Allen (33 points overall on 17 attempts, including 6-of-9 threes) had shot Boston out to a 64-49 lead at the half, the Celtics responded with an even more focused start to the third quarter. It was a highly promising display by a former champion that had looked tired for too many second halves this year, most prominently during Cleveland's previous visit in February when the Cavs -- trailing by 8 at halftime -- won the final two quarters 60-32.
Just when the Celtics appeared on the verge of establishing a new trend they lost their way as ...
• Rasheed Wallace selfishly earned a technical of his own in the final minute of the third, even as Allen, Rivers and Paul Pierce angrily begged him to put the needs of his teammates ahead of himself. (I have stubbornly refused to scapegoat Wallace this season, because the Celtics' real problems -- the injuries to Kevin Garnett and Pierce -- have transcended his unreliability as sixth man; but this outburst was an act of sabotage by someone whose play has not earned him the right.) Rivers was forced to rush Shelden Williams to the scorer's table and nothing more was seen of Wallace, who provided less than 11 minutes in what turned out to be Boston's biggest game of the year.
• Rajon Rondo (who on the previous play had dribbled out all but seven seconds of the shot clock to the result of a turnover) missed a drive and then earned a technical for complaining that he had been fouled. James made the free throw to pull Cleveland within 103-102 with 3:14 left.
• Tony Allen, whose defensive energy has earned him a role in Boston's playoff rotation (ahead of Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson, neither of whom left the bench), fouled James on a three-pointer in the third, then goal-tended an Anthony Parker three by taking the rebound off the rim to bring Cleveland within 112-111 with 35.2 seconds to go. With 3.2 seconds remaining, Allen yelled from the bench at James, leading to a squabble involving both teams. "I thought it was both guys, they were talking," said Rivers. "What I was concerned about -- and I told Tony afterwards -- was a tech. We couldn't afford a tech -- that takes it to a three-point game and then the whole game changes."
Asked what Allen was telling him, James would only say: "He did his job. He's a really good defender, real solid, and his job is make me miss shots. Or try."
But you scored 42 points, James was told.
"They won, so he did a good job," said James with a smile. "They won."
The Celtics were coming off three straight losses at home, including a dreadful 119-114 overtime defeat Friday. That night Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen held a private summit over dinner and decided to do less preaching and more on-court leading, with the understanding that the other Celtics will follow their leadership. As much as this game got away from them in the fourth quarter, they can draw strength from the final result. What started as a nonchalant meeting for Cleveland turned into a crucial stand for Boston.
"The game wasn't that important until we had a 20-point lead and then almost lost the game," said Rivers. "Then in my opinion the game became important. We couldn't give that game away ... I thought we had to get this win."
It used to be that Boston could look down its nose at the pregame posings and theatrics of the Cavaliers and question whether they were serious in their commitment. No longer can the Celtics afford to be so condescending. "Cleveland does a lot of stuff -- picture-taking, all kinds of stuff," said Rivers. "And unfortunately we have a similar team like that."