In hindsight, it was a good decision that the Celtics took the unusual step of retiring Paul Pierce’s jersey in a post-game ceremony rather than at halftime of Sunday’s showcase game against the Cavaliers. Otherwise, the home crowd—which included former Celtics coach Doc Rivers and 2008 title-winners Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo—would have had no reason to stick around for the fourth quarter.
LeBron James and his refashioned supporting cast smoked the Celtics 121-99 at TD Garden, with all four new Cavaliers turning in impressive debuts. Cleveland torched Boston’s No. 1 ranked defense for 64 first-half points before blowing open the contest with an 11-0 run late in the third quarter. The game was so far out of reach that James, who limped to the bench after banging his right knee in the first quarter, rested for the entire final quarter.
This was not a typical “LeBron takes over to spite the rival Celtics” type of night. Instead, Cleveland’s decisive third quarter was indicative of a balanced showing. James and new point guard George Hill (12 points, 3 rebounds) generated quality looks by playing off each other in simple pick-and-rolls, moving the ball with a level of trust that James and Isaiah Thomas never sustained. Defensively, Hill brought a level of competence that has been missing at the point all season long, helping to force multiple turnovers with his active hands, length and lateral quickness.
Hood, who spent the last few seasons in Utah’s often-cramped and slow-down offense, clearly benefited from Cleveland’s smaller, well-spread lineups. In the third, he nailed an open three-pointer in secondary transition, a look that was available to him all night. After one game, it was already easy to envision Hood (15 points, 3-6 on threes) playing Iman Shumpert’s role better than Shumpert had in years.
The Cavaliers’ two incoming Lakers, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., were central too. Twice in quick succession, James smartly used the lob threat of a hard-rolling Nance to suck in Boston’s defense, setting up open looks for Clarkson. Both times Clarkson (17 points in 23 minutes) cashed in the open three-pointers.
Nance (5 points, 4 rebounds) had the most modest numbers of Cleveland’s newcomers, but his speed and willingness to move off the ball generated numerous scoring opportunities. In addition to Clarkson’s threes, he opened up Hood for a clean mid-range look, he set a hard pick to free James for a floater in the paint and he slipped a screen for a thunderous dunk on a nifty pass from Kyle Korver.
For most of the season, the Cavaliers had looked like less than the sum of their aging superstar parts. For once, the opposite was true: James (24 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists) skated through Boston’s defense with ease, creating mismatches at will, supporting his lower-wattage teammates and ensuring that Cleveland’s offense rarely bogged down. Finger-pointing and dirty looks gave way to high-fives and pumped fists on the other end, as the Cavaliers’ defense cut down considerably on its mind-numbing lapses. Tristan Thompson, Cedi Osman and Hill, in particular, played with excellent energy, a commodity that has been missing virtually all season.
James praised his team’s “passion, IQ and hunger” in an ABC post-game interview, adding that Cleveland’s “attention to detail was at an all-time high this season.” Those words made for the best possible opening-night endorsement of the post-trade-deadline Cavaliers, who still have two months to jell and who will still get Kevin Love back before the playoffs.
The rest of the evening belonged to Pierce, who was honored brilliantly by Rivers and Celtics president Danny Ainge after the final buzzer. James and Pierce engaged in battles that produced defining postseason moments from 2008 through 2014, but Pierce’s rise to the rafters—contrasted with the game that came before it—served to underscore his rival’s longevity. For James looks primed for another deep playoff run, jolted by a row of fresh faces who arrived with perfect timing.