Monday, May 19, 2008
Paul Pierce and LeBron James in a Duel for the Ages
Paul Pierce picked a good time to have the best game in his NBA career yesterday. Without every one of his points, the Celtics would have been done for the season while the Cavs moved on to face the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celts beat the Cavaliers, 97-92, in game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the TD Banknorth Garden. Boston led from start to finish but it never really felt like the Cavs were dead since LeBron James had a sublime performance.
Pierce had 41 points, five assists and four rebounds while James had a game-high 45 points, six assists and five rebounds.
Playing without its best 3-point shooter (Daniel Gibson), King James finally went off in a big way but he simply didn't get enough help from the guys around him. It's no coincidence that James had his highest point total in a game that his team lost. Cleveland is at its best when the role players are hitting their shots and making plays. Nobody for the Cavs besides James and Delonte West (15 points) bothered showing up.
Outside of Pierce, Kevin Garnett (13 points, 13 rebounds) and P.J. Brown (10 points, 6 rebounds) were the other Celtics in double figures. Rajon Rondo had eight points, eight rebounds and eight assists while Kendrick Perkins added eight points.
The Celtics also wouldn't have prevailed without the unexpected contributions from Brown and Eddie House (4 points, steal, assist, block in 15 minutes).
Brown hit the game's biggest shot, putting the Celts up 91-88 with 1:21 left in the fourth after an 18-foot jumper. He also had a putback off a Rondo airball and he forced James into a desperation shot (airball) that the Celts corralled.
House had the hustle play of the game in the first half when he outran Wally Szczerbiak to a loose ball in the Cleveland backcourt, dove and tipped it to James Posey (5 points, 6 rebounds), who was fouled. Eddie was all kinds of fired up after sitting so much in the playoffs. He fought with West for another loose ball and fed Brown for the clinching shot.
On the other end of the spectrum is Ray Allen, who is currently decaying before our very eyes. In 30 minutes, Ray had four points (1 of 6 shooting). It got so bad that stubborn Doc Rivers was forced to sit him in the fourth and give minutes to the much more effective House and Brown.
Fittingly, Pierce put the game out of reach when he made both free-throws (11 of 12) to give Boston the final margin. A great free-throw shooter percentage-wise but not someone that could be labeled clutch at the line, Pierce saw the first shot bounce high off the back rim before falling through.
James and Pierce came out shooting in the first quarter and neither ever slowed down. The C's led 18-13 after the first quarter and 50-40 at the half.
Cleveland came out with much more energy than Boston to start the second half and cut the lead to five (73-68) going into the fourth. James' steal of Pierce and fast-break dunk cut the Celts lead to one (89-88) late in the fourth but the C's settled down and made the key plays when they had to.
Most of the team statistics were in the same range but Boston (39-29) had the rebounding edge with seven more assists (20-13).
The Pistons await the Celtics and they haven't played a game since closing out Orlando last Tuesday. Detroit comes to Boston tomorrow night for game 1. The experience edge obviously goes to the Pistons, who have been to six straight Eastern Conference Finals. The Celts will need to win a road game since the Pistons are such a good road team and it's likely that they'll take one at the Garden (most likely tomorrow).
It's certainly not the path the Celtics would have chosen (14 games in the first two rounds) but they've made the Eastern Conference Finals. Chauncey Billups missed the last two games of the Magic series with a strained hamstring so we'll have to see how healthy he is. If he's not 100%, the Celts should be favored. Otherwise, it's going six or seven and you'd have to pick the rested, veteran Pistons.