Of far greater importance than the details of this game are the minutes accumulated by Boston's elderly threesome heading into Game 7 on Sunday. While playing Games 5 and 6 in a span of three days, Kevin Garnett (who turns 32 Monday) has gone 84 minutes, while Ray Allen (32) and Paul Pierce (30) have each played 82. Maybe the importance of a Game 7 will overwhelm any fatigue they may feel. But they've already played more postseason basketball than any team, and now they've presented 23-year-old LeBron James (right) with a rare opportunity to knock off the No. 1 seed on its home floor with the entire country watching. And it's hard to believe that playing on the road will affect James as much as it has bothered Pierce, Allen and (to a lesser extent) Garnett.
Having earned the opportunity to clinch their conference semifinal Friday, the Celtics botched it by going without a field goal for close to 15 minutes over two crucial stretches, covering the last three quarters of the game. The Cavs outscored their guests by a stunning 36-4 during those droughts.
James went 9-for-23 with eight turnovers, but he scored 32 points with 12 rebounds, six assists and 15 free-throw attempts. It was no fluke the Cavs earned almost twice as many free throws as Boston: The Celtics have lost this stat column 10 times in 13 playoff games. Celtics coach Doc Rivers was livid when James drew a charge as Pierce launched a drive with 49.9 seconds left and Boston trailing by five. "I thought they were allowed to play pretty physical," Rivers said of the Cavs. "I thought the charge foul on Paul was" -- and he stopped himself before adding -- "that was a huge call to make." It was a lousy call, for sure. But the Celtics are advised not to dwell on it: They join a long line of complainants who have argued that James gets the benefit of the referees' doubt in the final minute of tight games.
The road-killed Celts -- the only surviving playoff team yet to win away from home this postseason -- appeared to be having things their way, leading 31-25 midway through the second quarter, as James was on his way to another rough half (2-of-9 shooting, five turnovers). Then their postseason fragility was exposed once more, as they went more than nine minutes without a field goal as the Cavs launched an astounding 24-2 run. Not even the extended break at halftime could staunch the Celtics' ineptitude, as they missed their first six shots of the second half. The drought ended three minutes into the third quarter when Allen followed his shot for a layup to bring the Celtics within 14, at 49-35.
The Celtics showed heart by immediately responding with a 15-2 run of their own (on a half-dozen points each from Pierce and Garnett) to quiet the Cleveland audience and make it a 51-48 late in the quarter. But Anderson Varejao rallied the Cavs to score the last six points of the quarter to make it 59-50 entering the final period. For all that had happened in the third, the Cavs' advantage was no different than it had been at halftime.
Another drought of 5:30 without a field goal resulted in a 65-52 Cleveland lead with 9:55 remaining. The Celtics had one more comeback in them -- coming within three points with 23.4 seconds remaining -- but they were ultimately finished off by successive field goals from James, on a drive and then a high-degree-of-difficulty turnaround jumper without dribbling (fueled by an unlikely Dick Barnett-style leg kick) to raise the Cavs lead back to 69-60 with 4:06 left.
Garnett came up big with 25 points (11-of-21 shooting) as the Celtics' only reliable scorer. But Pierce was 5-of-15 with only four free throws, and Allen was a meager 3-of-8. "I believe in Ray 100 percent," said Rivers. "He got some great looks tonight. He's going to make them eventually. We've just got to stay alive long enough for it to happen, and I believe that we will."
Had they won this game, the Celtics would have earned three days off next week (Wednesday through Friday) in the conference finals. Instead, the winner of Game 7 will jump into the next round Tuesday and play every other day for the remainder of the series. As for the Pistons, they report that Chauncey Billups practiced hard Friday and has used this week to recover from his strained hamstring. Detroit coach Flip Saunders gave his players the day off Saturday.
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