CLEVELAND ( exclusive) --  There are still 81 games to go, but for starters, this one was pretty good.

The verdict: Boston 95, Cleveland 89 in front of a sellout crowd of 20,562 Tuesday at Quicken Loans Arena. And it was exactly the type of opening night you would expect from two teams loaded with stars.

It was the Cavaliers' LeBron James soaring through the air to swat shots from behind.

It was Shaquille O'Neal making his Cleveland debut, the energetic home crowd going bananas every time he touched the ball.

It was Paul Pierce pulling up for one of his patented mid-range jumpers in the fourth quarter, rescuing the Celtics from what appeared to be a late Cavs run.

It was Kevin Garnett returning to the Celtics' lineup, wearing the wide smile of a man who was just happy to be back on the floor, ready to make another run at another championship.

Prior to tip-off, Pierce called it a "measurement game," an early gauge of where two reshaped title contenders stand.

And at first, it looked as if the Celtics were more likely to take a seat and watch. The Cavs bolted to a lead of 13-2. They built it to 17-4. They made the Celtics look old, slow, overmatched, unprepared.

Then suddenly, everything shifted. The Celtics did what they have always done, what led them to the championship in 2008 -- they bent their knees and shuffled their feet on defense, and hit the open man and cut to the basket on offense. Mostly, they stayed calm when it seemed as if all had been lost.

"We tried to handle their intensity early," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We knew they were gonna come out jacked up."

Interestingly, it wasn't until the Celtics' reserves entered the game late in the first quarter that things began to change. That's when Rivers inserted veteran newcomers such as Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels, who led the way with energy, hustle and a couple of big baskets.

A 28-21 first-quarter deficit turned into a 51-45 halftime lead, and it practically happened in the blink of an eye.

"Our second unit saved the game," Rivers said.

The first unit did the rest -- with old standbys Pierce (23 points, 11 rebounds), Garnett (13 points, 10 rebounds) and Ray Allen (16 points) proving that the Big Three is alive and well, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, the Cavs were far from panicked afterwards, understanding that the dynamic duo of LeBron (38 points, eight assists) and Shaq (10 points, 10 boards) will need some time to gel. Especially when you consider the Cavs are still figuring out a rotation that also includes new faces and expected key contributors such as swingman Anthony Parker and forward Jamario Moon.

As Celtics guard Rajon Rondo said, "You've got to understand that our core is basically the same. We've been playing together for three and a half years now. It's gonna take them some time."

As O'Neal added, "We just have to keep at it. You can't win a championship in the first game."

Or as Rivers simply put it, "They're gonna be great."

After the game, Rivers quickly addressed his team, then watched on TNT as the Los Angeles Lakers received their championship rings. It may have only been the first game, but Rivers and the Celtics suddenly remembered how that felt.

"I like what happened tonight because everyone contributed," Rivers said. "It's one of 82, but it's a big one."

For James and the Cavs, there's plenty of time to get things right.

"We'll be around," he said.

And you had better believe it.