A Daily Babble Production
Of the many disturbing facets of the Celtics' visit to Quicken Loans Arena in January, none topped the result of the match-up between LeBron James and Paul Pierce.
Plenty went wrong for the green in the Cavs' 98-83 win on January 9. But Bron's complete and utter dominance of our beloved captain was downright scary, particularly at the defensive end. With some assistance from the help defenders that Mike Brown sent at times, James bottled Pierce up all night. He bodied up to Paul every time PP picked up his dribble and routinely slid to the right spot to cut off Pierce's progress and prevent him from getting even as low as the foul line. James got on the floor and chased down every 50-50 ball that night, and it isn't a stretch to say that Pierce's 4-for-15 shooting line (with five turnovers) wasn't as good as it looked on paper.
That LBJ did whatever he wanted at the offensive end in terms of getting to the basket, going to the line and hitting threes was just kerosene on the fire. As fellow writer CelticBalla32 said to me after the game, "I've never seen [Pierce] mentally say 'You win' to a one-on-one opponent. He did tonight." That's certainly what it looked like, and as a Celtics diehard, the only word I've used to describe it since has been "terrifying."
Until last night.
In what was perhaps the Celtics' finest win of the season to date, the Truth reminded us that what happened in January was by no means a definitive sign of how things are going to be come springtime.
Pierce's teammates deserve some credit up front (although we'll get to them more in the bullet points) because the Celtics' strong play in the paint forced Mike Brown away from sending constant traps at Paul every time he touched the ball as he did during Pierce's 1-for-6 start from the field.
But from there on out, the captain was dominant. On multiple occasions, when LeBron tried to body him away from the basket, Pierce simply elevated over him. He rose up and drained a jumper from the right wing in the first half to nullify a defensive three seconds call on the Cavs, and he hit a similar shot in the second half. On exactly the sort of play where LeBron throttled him two months ago, Pierce came up aces.
He spent the rest of the night finding different ways to tear up for the Cleveland defense. Several times, the Celtics ran that 3-1 screen roll they like at the top of the circles, and it created mismatches for Pierce against Mo Williams and Delonte West. Sometimes he shot right away at the foul line before the Cavs could even switch, and on a couple of other occasions he went right to the rim. As Hubie Brown noted on ESPN, Paul has become adept at attacking across the lane from right to left, switching hands and finishing with his left while absorbing contact. He had another beautiful lay-in of that sort last night, and he drained a couple of transition threes while he was supposedly on LeBron's watch.
Though the Cavs stopped sending help defenders to trap him early in the game, Paul started drawing them back to him later. He got in the lane with ease and forced the Cavs' interior defenders to go to him, which opened up even more room for his teammates. Once Cleveland cut the Celtics' lead to seven late in the fourth quarter, Pierce used his control of the offense to break the game open over the next four possessions. After getting to the rim for a lay-up, Pierce drove again on the next play. The Cavs' bigs stepped to him in the lane, leaving the captain free to dump the ball off to Leon Powe. Lay-in. Then a foul drawn on center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Two splashes from the foul line. Finally, another drive meriting more defensive attention from the Cleveland frontcourt led to a sweet pass to Powe (more on him later) for a dunk. In less than 90 seconds, the Celtics lead ballooned from seven to 15. The Cavs never recovered.
For the night, Pierce dished out nine assists, including four in the fourth quarter. He knocked down 10 of his last 16 field-goal attempts and went 4-for-5 on the rare occasions that he was permitted to step to the foul line.
Once more, the captain played the primary role in a concerted team effort to keep LeBron James out of the paint and ineffective from the field. Yet again, he played Superman offensively when the Celtics' needed it, and he refused to back down from LeBron. After the biggest plays, he gave us that clenched-fists-at-his-waist-head-raised-screaming-to-the-heavens expression that has come to punctuate clutch play from the men in green. It felt just like spring 2008 last night.
O captain, our captain. Unlike in Walt Whitman's world, he is anything but cold and dead.
Assorted ramblings about a joyous victory:
- Leon! Powe has been playing improved basketball over the last few weeks as he has been doing a fine job finishing inside and earning trips to the charity stripe. He put it all together with a huge performance last night. While he got his share of buckets off of great feeds from Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, he also made a couple of smooth moves to create his own shots and spin his way to buckets on the blocks. Perfect timing for his best game of the season, a beauty of a 20-point, 11-rebound performance on 9-for-11 shooting. He came up with a big block on Mo Williams in the fourth quarter, secured the rebound and then got down the floor to finish the play with a lay-in. Hard to imagine being happier with his play.
- While Leon stole the show among the bigs, he was far from alone in providing the frontcourt's contributions. As Hubie Brown pointed out throughout the evening, the Celtics dominated the paint. Kendrick Perkins grabbed three offensive rebounds and turned them into four points for the Celtics, including a nice tip of his own (with his left hand, if memory serves). Prior to his untimely exit, Large Baby looked great at the offensive end. He not only continued to knock down mid-range jumpers but made a pretty spin move to get to the rim and muscle the ball in to set up a three-point play opportunity early on. Mikki Moore knocked down all three of his shots, too, including a dunk off a nice feed from Stephon Marbury and then two key jumpers on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter. Huge night from the bigs.
- Speaking of the Infuriated Infant's untimely exit, I can print very little of what I yelled at my television set following the ejection. Not sure why Ray Allen earned himself a technical, not sure why Mike Brown spends more time on the court during games than the other 29 head coaches combined. Not sure why it appeared as though the Cavs would have been allowed to guard Paul Pierce with a two-by-four on several possessions while the same could not be said at the other end. Moving on.
- Channeling Roy Hobbs (the CB forums manager, rather than the fellow from The Natural), here's my summation of Mikki Moore's defensive play in one word: bad. Love his energy, and I think he'll become a fan favorite quickly, and I like the analogy to a bigger version of Eddie House as far as his possible lovability is concerned. I'm not levying definitive judgment on the defense either at this point as it seems only fair to give him some more time to adjust himself to the Celtics' system. But the early returns at that end of the floor aren't impressive.
- Stephn Marbury made an aforementioned pass to Mikki Moore for a dunk in the second quarter, but I thought the even nicer play was Steph's touch pass along the perimeter to set up Eddie House for an open three.
- After tripling cardiology revenues in the greater New England area in the first quarter, Rajon Rondo came back with a vengeance. While he didn't do a lot of scoring, he managed to knock down a couple of jumpers, and he did a fine job propelling the offense and running the fast break. Once again, he was the key to the Celtics' superb ball movement. The team's 31 assists on 45 made baskets didn't happen by accident. The unselfish play at the offensive end was a sight to be seen.
- In addition to a 12-point third quarter, Ray Allen did a fine job defensively. On several occasions down the stretch, switches and rotations left him as the primary defender against LeBron James. He moved his feet well, got to the right spots and directed LeBron to the defensive help.
- Team defense, team defense, team defense: The Celtics did exactly what they wanted to do with LeBron for most of the night. They forced him to earn his points from the outside or the foul line by routinely bringing multiple defenders at him, especially coming off of screen rolls. The men guarding James (notably Pierce and Allen) also routinely funneled LeBron to the help inside when he looked to get to the middle of the floor. The Celts limited his clean looks at the basket and for the most part refused to allow easy buckets.
- More than any other game this year (the February game against the Lakers is a close second), this one brought me back to the the feelings of last spring. The yelling at the television, the inability to sit down all evening, the hystronics after every play: The energy in the building and the intensity on the court kicked my game-watching mode up a notch. The feeling of the C's containing LeBron as a team and coming out with a clutch win was wonderful. I walked the streets for an hour on a 70-degree night here in the Midwest as I had my customary postgame chat with The Guru, and the the realization hit me anew that I am tremendously excited for this stretch run and the postseason, no matter how it ends. It's a thrill just to be along for the ride.