The best team of the 82-game season reappeared -- dramatically so -- over the final 27:30. The Celtics were trailing by 14 late in the first half and permitting LeBron James to drive and score as he pleased when they put their foot down defensively. They stiffened their double-teaming against James, went on a 12-3 run to tighten their halftime deficit to 46-43, then further amped their defense while playing their most fluid offensive half of the playoffs. Does this mean a sudden return to regular-season form for a team that a couple of hours earlier appeared to be facing a potential elimination game Friday at Cleveland? "I just want to keep having opportunities to win a road game," said Boston coach Doc Rivers, who doesn't want the Celtics' 0-5 postseason road record serving as a referendum on their overall title hopes. "I don't think anyone's playing really well on the road right now in the playoffs."
The surprising star was Celtics second-year point guard Rajon Rondo, with 20 points on 15 shots, 13 assists (two more than the enter Cavaliers output) and one turnover, plus two steals and two blocks, including a spectacular mini-KG rejection from the weakside of a Delonte West drive. "Without Rondo it would have been a much tougher game for them to win," said James. "He was definitely the player of the game."
James put the Celtics in big trouble early. Though he came into Game 5 shooting an abysmal 27.5 percent (14-of-51), he noted during a pregame interview that his play had improved in each game of this series. And so on Cleveland's second possession James tested his readiness by pulling up for a cleanly struck 18-foot jumper over Paul Pierce -- and turned back downcourt shaking his head and talking to himself, as if to let everyone know he was feeling it tonight. Next time down he pulled up from the right corner for a difficult three on the move and hopped away energized. For most of the opening half he was getting to the basket freely with little of the interference he faced during the previous four games. James made eight of his first 11 from the field to open a 43-29 advantage with 3:50 left in the half, producing boos from a minority of the Boston audience during a timeout earlier in the second quarter. "He was beating the guy guarding him before the double-team could come," said Rivers. "So he's beating two guys, and now he has a three-on-two break to the basket. And with LeBron James and a three-on-two break, the odds don't favor you."
The game shifted as Rondo hit a pair of enormous threes over a span of 46 seconds as the Celtics went on a 12-3 half-ending run to close the deficit to 46-43. That was when the Celtics comprehensively addressed the fact that James had produced half of Cleveland's points (23) and assists (three). "LeBron was getting to the paint, he was rejecting our pick-and-roll coverage and we were allowing it," said Rivers. "We didn't make an adjustment. We needed to force him the way we wanted him to go."
In all James would go scoreless for 15:06 as the Celtics outscored Cleveland 42-18 in that decisive span. When James ended the drought by pulling up for an 8-footer over a double-team with 44.2 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Cavs were trailing 71-61. They had turned over their first three possessions of the second half, and they would go 7-of-18 from the field and 3-of-8 from the line in the third quarter.
The Celtics have played excellent defense for other stretches of the playoffs; the difference this time was the ensuing renewal of their offensive form. The shot 55.6 percent in the second half while getting breakout games from Pierce (29 points overall on 19 shots, with a significant 11-of-13 performance from the foul line), Garnett (26 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks) and Rondo, who attacked the paint for Steve Nash-like floating runners or kickouts to his fellow scorers along with Ray Allen (11 points), who also was more aggressive in looking for his shot, going to the basket and making plays for others. The Celtics additionally benefited from 12 influential second-half minutes from rookie forward Glen (Big Baby) Davis, a regular-season contributor who had hardly made a dent in postseason: He made his presence felt by almost disembodying Wally Szczerbiak while diving over the top for a loose ball. For the first meaningful stretch of these playoffs, the Celtics played at both ends like the No. 1 seed that flowed to 66 wins in the regular season. "At some point you knew they would start trusting each other again," said Rivers. "Maybe it took us getting down to (inspire them to) actually lean in again."
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