They lost 105-94 Friday to the Celtics minus Kevin Garnett and Garnett's replacement, Glen Davis. Onto the stage ran Leon Powe in his role as understudy to the understudy, reading from KG's script for 20 points and 11 rebounds on a night that has to make Cleveland hungrier than ever to seize homecourt advantage.
"For them to get this win tonight, that would have been devastating,'' said Celtics captain Paul Pierce (11 of 22, nine assists) after outscoring LeBron James (5 of 15, five assists) 29-21. "We put ourselves right back into the race.''
He was referring to the right to play Game 7 of the Eastern finals at home three months from now. That's what this is all about: The win put Boston in a virtual tie with Cleveland atop the Eastern Conference entering the closing quarter of the season.
A victory like this hurts the Cavaliers as much as it helps the reigning champions. Not only were the visitors unable to exploit Garnett's absence, they were murdered by his replacements. Powe, Davis (10 points) Kendrick Perkins (10) and newcomer Mikki Moore (six) combined to go 22 of 32 from the floor. The Celtics murdered Cleveland in the paint 58-22 and shot 54.2 percent against a Cavs' defense that was ranked No. 1 in points and shooting percentage allowed.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers emphasized two phases to overcome the absence of Garnett, who is expected to return next week from his strained right knee (he watched this game from the Celtics locker room). Wary that the Cavs like to rotate a big man to trap Pierce and Ray Allen on the perimeter, the Celtics focused on making the extra interior pass to their own open big man around the basket: Thus 31 assists on 45 field goals overall.
"If they bring their big man away from the bucket,'' said Rivers, "we're going to get layups and duck-in dunks.''
This didn't quite feel like a playoff game, but it was as close as you'll find in early March. In spite of a poor first half, the Cavs had closed out both quarters to trail 45-43 at intermission. Three minutes into the third Davis was ejected for a Flagrant 2 foul around the neck of Anderson Varejao, knocking him horizontally airborne and inciting an emotional pileup of bickering opponents under the Cavs' basket that took several minutes and video reviews before the officials cleared it up.
From that mess emerged Rajon Rondo (10 assists to one turnover), who had been sidelined for a portion of the first half by a sprained ankle. The Celtics point guard produced a terrific eight-assist quarter, pushing his teammates into the open floor for easy scores as Pierce and Allen combined for 23 points while playing the entire quarter. That was the other phase Rivers had emphasized before the game: That the Celtics refuse to lapse into Cleveland's walk-it-up, run-off-tackle pace of play. With Rondo pushing tempo so firmly the Celtics shot 13 of 19 (68.4 percent) for the third quarter, augmenting their tiny halftime advantage to lead 78-69 entering the final period.
Mo Williams (26 points) tried to negate Rondo's playmaking, but the unexpected star was Powe. Listed copiously at 6-8, he squirmed and wrenched up awkward bankers over and around Cleveland's bigger bigs, whether he was ruthlessly converting postups the instant the ball came his way or cutting backdoor or down the throat to receive feeds from Pierce.
"No KG or with KG,'' said James, "they are going to be a great team because they buy into the system. A lot of teams can't afford to lose an All-Star, but they have two more. They lose KG, the heart and soul of the defense, but they still have two superstars that can keep up the same tempo.''
Powe surely exploited his opportunities in the seams created by Pierce, Allen (17) and Rondo's penetrations. So did Moore, who is being asked to do for this team what P.J. Brown did last year upon signing at midseason. Moore hit all three of his field goals, including a midrange jumper reminiscent of Brown's work against the Cavs last postseason.
In what might have been a lost weekend for the Celtics, they can now further deepen their aura when Orlando -- No. 3 in the East -- visits Sunday. They've gone 5-2 since Garnett was hurt, but they may miss him more than ever against the Magic and their three-point shooting power forward.
"Kevin can guard Rashard Lewis,'' said Rivers with a frown.
We'll see if Powe and the rest can handle that.