BOSTON – It didn’t matter that the Cleveland Cavaliers were playing the Boston Celtics, their heated rival. Nor did the Cavs stir when their coach was ejected in the third quarter. Even the lure of clinching the NBA’s best record and securing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs didn’t do much to inspire the Cavs early Sunday afternoon.
Only when LeBron James(notes) received a rare technical for complaining to the officials in the fourth quarter did Cleveland finally awake. Led by James, the Cavs launched a spirited comeback that saw them briefly overtake the Celtics after trailing by as many as 22 points. Boston went on to win, 117-113, but the Cavs still sent a message of their own:
No longer do they need to measure themselves against the Celtics. For James and his Cavs, there is only one opponent these final 1½ weeks of the season: boredom.
“We try to find one little edge, one little small edge that can get us going,” James said. “It is hard. All teams know it is hard to get up for every single game. But you have to find a small edge to get you going through the night.
“Tonight, what we got out of it was a playoff atmosphere, something that we can carry with us [as a challenge] to finish games off. We saw it in Milwaukee on Wednesday. We played a really good game against them, playoff atmosphere. Friday same thing with Atlanta, playoff intensity. Today against Boston, playoff intensity. It’s been a really good week for our team.”
Even in losing, the Cavs showed just how good they can be when motivated. The Celtics were at full strength and coming off a three-game home losing streak. The Cavs didn’t have either Anderson Varejao(notes) or Shaquille O’Neal(notes), and Zydrunas Ilgasukas is still trying to work himself back into shape after his month-long layoff.
Even so, Cleveland dominated the Celtics when they decided to raise their game in the fourth quarter. James finished with 42 points and even passed on an opportunity to tie the game with 4.9 seconds left to instead go for the kill, launching a 3-pointer that clanged off the left side of the rim.
“It felt like he scored their last 60 points in a row, at one point,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Really. And who didn’t think that wasn’t going in when he shot it? Honestly, you clearly wanted him to drive if you were them and we clearly wanted him to shoot because at least we got a chance of missing. At the basket, he’s just a bull.”
Said James: “As long as I’m on the court, my team will never quit. It doesn’t matter if we’re down 20 or down 30. We’ll have a chance to win.”
“This game has lost a little bit of that through the years, a little bit of talking,” James said. “Teams not liking each other. That’s the same thing I figured out last year when I walked off the court in Orlando [after being eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals]. People were mad that I didn’t shake hands. I’m not happy. I’m disgusted that I lost and I move on to the next season. That’s what the game’s lost, it’s lost what it had in the ’80s and early ’90s when teams really didn’t like each other.”
James also had a message for anyone who viewed the Cavs’ loss as a chink in their armor: “We are still missing a very, very big, huge – literally – piece to our team.”
That would be O’Neal, who is still recovering from surgery on his right thumb. While O’Neal said recently he expects to be back before the playoffs begin, Cavs coach Mike Brown said there’s a chance O’Neal might not return until the postseason.
As the Cavs wait on O’Neal, James wouldn’t mind getting some rest during the next five games. Cleveland can afford to give it to him after the Los Angeles Lakers’ loss to the San Antonio Spurs assured the Cavs of home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
“We could all use the rest,” James said. “So many guys have played throughout the season. If we continue to play well the next couple of games, I think I will look at it to see if I can get some rest. I would love it before the playoffs start.”
“You put those things in the back of your mind, too,” Cavs guard Mo Williams(notes) said. “Sometimes it’s better to sit out. You don’t want those things to happen. You feel good, you want to play, I understand, but you never know. We are already in the playoffs, and when you’re playing a team that’s out of the playoffs you never know what may happen.
“You want to be … more safe than sorry.”
“I need games after missing a month,” Ilgauskas said. “I’m not going to take any time off. I’m not far [off]. I’m getting better each game. Some games and some practices help. I just have to get my rhythm back.”
In the meantime, the Cavs will wait to see who they’ll face in the first round, likely the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls or Charlotte Bobcats. For the second straight season, they’ll enter the playoffs with the NBA’s best record, confident and hungry, but perhaps also wiser after learning from last year’s loss to the Magic.
All that’s left for James is to prove he can finally win a championship for Cleveland. In a week and a half, the boredom ends.
“You don’t need to find an edge in the playoffs,” James said. “It’s the real season. The regular season is great. …But I think we all know the playoffs is where it’s at.”