By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jan 10 2009 12:54AM
CLEVELAND -- Advantage: Cavs.
Oh, this battle is far from over. The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet twice more in the regular season and possibly seven times in May. But on Jan. 9, with the season almost halfway over, the best team in the Eastern Conference resides in Cleveland.
With Friday's 98-83 win over Boston at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs (29-6) solidified their spot atop the East, three games ahead of the champs in the loss column and two ahead of the now second-place Orlando Magic. First place in the conference means something big: home-court advantage in the playoffs.
It's certainly possible that one of these teams can beat the other on the road at some point. But the home team has won all 13 meetings between the two since Danny Ainge brought the big three together in Boston. And that's no coincidence.
The Celtics and Cavs are as even a match as you're going to get, two terrific defensive teams with star players that make big plays. And the home crowd can make the difference, especially in the postseason.
"When you have two good teams competing against each other," said Cavs coach Mike Brown after the game, "if you have any type of advantage at all in terms of somebody bringing some juice and some energy, it might help you get over the hump."
This win meant more than just a win for the Cavs and a loss for the Celtics. Nobody in the Cleveland locker room will call it a "statement game," but it at least provided a very convincing argument. The Cavs led from start to finish, showing why they're at the top of the league when it comes to offensive and defensive efficiency.
Cleveland's offensive execution was nearly flawless in the first quarter as it build an early 10-point lead. It scored on nine of its first 10 possessions and shot 13-for-18 in the period, turning the ball over just once. Twenty of the Cavs' 33 first-quarter points came in the paint. LeBron James shot 3-for-7 from the field in the period, but his teammates were 10-for-11.
"We did a nice job of moving bodies and moving the basketball," Brown said. "Not only that, we got into our offense early, so it allowed us to get to the second option and sometimes the third option. And that's what you have to do against a team against the Celtics, who are a very, very good defensive team, but they're extremely good if you try to beat them just on the strong side."
That first quarter was pivotal, because the remaining 36 minutes were more like what we expected from the two best defensive teams in the league. After the first, the teams combined to shoot less than 40 percent from the field.
The Cavs had their lulls offensively, but that's when their defense and their superstar carried them. James was all over the floor in the second half, picking up steals and blocking shots on one end while getting to the rim at will on the other.
He put his stamp on the game in the fourth during a 9-2 run that sealed the game. Deflecting an Eddie House pass and chasing it down was what Brown would call a "winning play" and was reminiscent of Paul Pierce chasing down a jump ball near the end of Game 7 of the Conference semifinals in Boston. It didn't get the Cavs a score, but it left just eight seconds on the shot clock for Boston to go the full length of the court and resulted in a 24-second violation.
James finished with 38 points on 13-for-25 shooting, seven boards, six assists, four steals and three blocks. He thoroughly outplayed Pierce, who scored just 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting. It was a dominant performance from the most dominant player in the game. Afterward, he wasn't afraid to admit that games against the Celtics mean a little extra.
"No competitor, no individual, no team can just sit there and tell you it's the same [as any other game]," he said. "There's no way it can be the same."
Having lost seven of their last nine games, the Celtics are clearly not at their best. But coach Doc Rivers "saw good things" in this game and the Celtics have their championship experience to fall back on over the next few months -- not to mention a 19-game winning streak that preceded this rough patch.
"Fortunately, we had put enough money in the bank to take a withdrawal right now," Rivers said earlier in the day. "And that's basically what we've done."
His team brought more focus and better energy for their newest rival in an attempt to end their slide. But the Cavs matched it. The next meeting will be in Boston on March 6, with the winner taking a 2-1 series edge.
Right now, in addition to a three-game edge in the loss column, the Cavs have one more advantage over the Celtics. And he wears No. 23.
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