BOSTON -- The Cavaliers crushed the Celtics 124-95 in Game 3 Friday to not only reclaim home-court advantage with a 2-1 lead in the series, but also create doubts that Boston can extend this conference semifinal beyond Game 5 Tuesday in Cleveland -- the beating was that overwhelming.
• The return of LeBron James. After three days of rest James showed no sign of trouble with his right shooting elbow -- to say the least. "I think he's healthy,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers, "so enough with the elbow injury, all right?''
In the second minute, he went straight up with an errant jumper, then made his next six shots -- mainly off the dribble -- to personally outscore Boston 16-15 out of the gate while the Cavs seized a 27-15 advantage. His fast start withstood a hard Flagrant Foul 1 in transition from KendrickPerkins, who bodied James going up to the basket and forced him to gather his breath before he made both free throws.
The Cavs responded to that foul with a 10-0 run, and James would go on to set a Cavs postseason record for points in a quarter (21), as Cleveland jumped on Boston for a 36-17 lead at the end of the first.
And that was the game. "We were aggressive on both ends of the floor for 48 minutes,'' said Cleveland coach Mike Brown, who after Game 2 had angrily challenged his team to rise to the level of this win. "It was great to see LeBron set the tone from the jump ball, and everybody else followed.''
"You knew he was going to grab the ball and he was going to attack all game, especially early to get his guys involved,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "I didn't think we gave any resistance. I mean, he was playing HORSE.''
Boston never inched closer than 15 points in the second, never closer than 20 in the third, never closer than 23 in the fourth. "I think rest helped me, rest helped all of us,'' said James. "We was able to put (together) a complete game for the first time in this playoffs. It was a whole 360 of what we did in Game 2.''
James finished with 38 points on 22 shots (2 of 3 from three) with eight rebounds and seven assists. He was overtly aggressive, chasing down the Celtics in transition, trying to block every shot within reach and personally outscoring Boston's Big Three as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined for 37 points on 33 shots.
Combined with the 45 points James scored in Game 7 here two years ago, he has now scored 83 over his last two playoff games in Boston. "It started with me tonight,'' said James, "and everyone saw my aggression and just took advantage of it.''
• The defenseless Celtics. Boston enabled the Cavs to shoot 59.5% for the game as Cleveland's eight-man rotation went 43-for-69 (62.3%). "Defensively we were horrible,'' said Rivers. "We were awful, just didn't play with a lot of urgency. And they played with a Game 7 mentality.''
It was thought the three-day break would help the elderly Celtics regenerate for Game 3, but the free time backfired on them. "We had two lousy practices,'' said Rivers. "I thought our preparation was (like) pulling nails, and so that was the result.''
"They took the fight to us early and we didn't respond to it,'' said Pierce. "It's embarrassing when you lose at home like that.''
• Defending Rajon Rondo. Rondo's drives had shredded the Cavs for 40 points and 31 assists over the first two games, so Cleveland opened Game 3 by covering him with 6-foot-6 shooting guard Anthony Parker (leaving Mo Williams to chase Ray Allen). The strategy served its purpose as Parker dared 6-foot Rondo to take -- and miss -- open jumpers, stagnating the Celtics' offense as James ran up big numbers at the other end.
As a result of diverting Rondo away from the lane in the early going, he started out an inefficient 3-for-9 while Pierce, Allen and Garnett were a neglected 2-for-10 over the lost opening quarter. "We did a good job of making him shoot jump shots tonight,'' said Cavs forward J.J. Hickson. "We know he wants to get in the lane and make plays and I thought we made it uncomfortable for him tonight.''
Rondo finished with an impressive 18 points and eight assists, but he had no impact on the game. Rivers said the defense on Rondo didn't amount to a change of strategy so much as an improvement in execution. "(Parker) has been on him for two games, so I don't know if that's actually an adjustment,'' said Rivers. "Offensively we didn't have a lot of movement. We've got to make a concerted effort to continue to go to Kevin, and we didn't do that.''
• The frontline disparity. The Cavs grabbed an alarming 25-10 rebounding advantage in the first half while generating seven offensive rebounds to the five the Celtics were able to salvage from their own defensive board. "They shot 62% in the first half and they still had more offensive rebounds than us,'' said Rivers. "That's just bad numbers for us.''
No Celtic grabbed more than two rebounds in the opening half as Boston was beaten in every way imaginable. Overall, the Cavs outrebounded their gracious hosts 34-14 on the defensive board. Rondo led Boston with five rebounds, while Boston big men Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis had nine rebounds in 85 minutes altogether -- as many as 38 year old Shaquille O'Neal grabbed in his 23 minutes.
• The whistles. The discrepancy in fouls had been an issue over the first two games when the Celtics were whistled for 23 more fouls than Cleveland. The Celtics' veiled complaints didn't help as Perkins and Garnett were forced to the bench with two personal fouls each in the opening seven minutes.
But Pierce didn't want to hear any complaining after the Cavs earned 34 free throw attempts (and uncharacteristically made 31 of them) to Boston's 29. "We fouled, they didn't,'' he said. "They were aggressive, we weren't.''
Pierce is averaging 12.7 points and shooting 13-of-42 (31.0%) from the field in this series. "He's got to get more involved,'' said Rivers. "He has got to play better.''
While Pierce sounded optimistic of an improvement in his scoring, he added that the Celtics face bigger issues going into Game 4 here Sunday. "It doesn't matter what I do offensively,'' he said. "I could have scored 30 tonight and we probably would have lost the game, the way we played defense.''