Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Cleveland 101, Boston 93
; Cleveland leads series, 1-0

Throughout the regular season, no matter how laughable it sounded, I kept referring to the Boston Celtics as championship contenders.

Mind you, I didn't even promote that designation for any of the West's potential number twos (while fully conceding that several teams below the Lakers had a chance to win the title), but I still kept Boston in my little group with Los Angeles, Orlando, and Cleveland.

And as the season went on, it was clear that this made no sense. So I started to take pot-shots at myself over it, in print and in interviews, while still believing it to be true. Even though, beyond the fact that they won it two years ago and are still quite talented, I had no idea what part of it was true. I just kept calling it "true," and ripping myself in the process. I'm sure others joined, at home.

Tonight, I think I've figured out why it was true, and is true. The Boston Celtics are still championship contenders, because they think they can win the title this season. They still believe, and that's not the type of vapid nonsense, that fake analysis, that I usually like to toss out.

The Celtics do believe, and that's what sets them apart from, really, just about any other team not mentioned above.

Now, the reality of the situation is that Boston could be outright swept in this series with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But at the very least, watching this team go through its sets, and watching its players compete, it's clear that the Celtics believe. Wherever that takes them.

Cleveland took them behind the shed in the second half of this game. Paying extra attention to Rajon Rondo while trying to emphasize Mo Williams' strengths (scoring) instead of living with his weaknesses (defending), the Cavs roared back after an up and down first half to outscore the Celtics by 19 in the second half. Just 15 points in the fourth quarter for Boston, and though at first glance you couldn't help but snipe at the C's for playing bad offense, all those instant replays showed nothing but fantastic Cavalier defense.

And, as is usually the case, LeBron James was all-around brilliant.

James was a bit timid in the first half, there's no getting around that, but he also had a few easy drives snuffed out by fouls, and three shots close to the rim (including two post-up opportunities that I'd really like to see him go back to) that spun out. Timid, yes; but off his game? I can't fully commit to that.

In the end, after scoring from just about every place imaginable in the second half, 35 points on 24 shots, seven boards, seven assists (including three passes by my count that should have ended with an easy lay-in), three steals, just two turnovers, and two blocks. Several changed shots, and I'm not pouring on, I just have to let you know. He was great in ways that just don't make it to the box score.

Look at him in an isolation set. It's not that he's waiting for his own defender to over-commit to a certain side, or to LeBron's potential shot or drive. He's waiting for and watching his second defender, waiting for him to over-commit, or to think shot or drive-first. At the same time. And then he makes his split decision and moves.

Think about what this guy has to be aware of, and then for him still to get to the rim, or an open perimeter look. It's just ridiculous that he's not really waiting for Paul Pierce to make a bad move defensively; it's that he's waiting for Tony Allen or Kevin Garnett to make a bad move. And they're guarding someone else!

KG (1-5 shooting in the fourth quarter) and Pierce (1-7, mostly workable looks) just weren't there down the stretch as the Cavs pulled away. The shots were contested, but it was nothing we haven't seen them overcome time and time again.

Rajon Rondo was terrific in the first half, taking it to a helpless Mo Williams, but a switch that saw Anthony Parker step in front of Rondo to start the second half (partially) and increased attention from the rest of the Cavs (mostly) mitigated Rondo's influence as the game moved along. That is to say, the help registered the most impact, not Parker, and Rondo was pretty damn mitigated, if you know what I mean. RR still finished with 27 points, 12 assists, and six rebounds.

Shaquille O'Neal helped, 11 points and four rebounds, and there's no reason for Kendrick Perkins to finish with just three fouls with Shaq tipping in loose balls or working in the post. Antawn Jamison was an afterthought for Cleveland, but not Boston. This wasn't all Mo Williams (20 points) and J.J. Hickson (11 points off the bench) stepping up. KG was denying Antawn the ball, as the Celtics clearly saw what he did in the first round against Chicago.

The Cleveland bench, which is better than the Boston bench, outscored Doc Rivers' bench 26-12.

A competitive start, and great game. Rondo probably gets better from here on out - sorry to return to this, but he believes - and Kevin Garnett should sustain on both ends. Ray Allen, who needed 14 shots to score 14 points, will also probably improve.

Paul Pierce? Hard to say. It's not like I'm going to assume that this giant will continue to shoot 5-17 in the series, but he did shoot 40 percent against the Cavaliers this season, and struggled against LeBron James' defense last season.

I'm ready to love this series. There was nothing chippy, nothing dirty, and effort and execution won out; even if it was one team winning the first half, and another (really, really) winning the second half.

More, please.

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