In the kind of performance that could cause a superstar to leave and a coach to get fired, the Cavaliers had absolutely no answer for the supposedly old Boston Celtics, who cruised to an unbelievably easy 120-88 win Tuesday night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Celtics now lead the series 3-2 and can close out their upset of the top-seeded Cavaliers by winning Game 6 Thursday night at 8 at TD Garden.
“We cannot come back here,” Boston forward Kevin Garnett said after his team handed the Cavaliers their worst home playoff loss in franchise history for the second straight time in the series. “This is our Game 7 coming up (Thursday).”
If the Cavaliers can force a real Game 7, it will be Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at The Q. If they can’t, major changes could be coming for a team that has posted the best regular-season record in the league the past two seasons.
A year ago, Cleveland went 66-16 in the regular season and won its first eight playoff games before getting shocked by Orlando in the conference finals.
Now, the supposedly built-for-the-postseason Cavaliers, who went an NBA-best 61-21 in 2009-10, are suddenly on the verge of elimination a round earlier.
“Me sitting up here and saying that was potentially our last home game of the season, that wouldn’t be me, it wouldn’t be our team,” James said.
In the next breath, however, the seventh-year pro did not fault Cleveland fans for booing loudly for most of the final period.
“We played awful,” James said. “They had every right to boo us.”
When a best-of-seven series has been tied 2-2, the Game 5 winner has advanced 86 percent of the time.
When a team plays like Cleveland did in Game 5, it loses 100 percent of the time.
The Cavaliers were absolutely lousy in every area – offense, defense, coaching – and it started with two-time league MVP James, who will almost certainly opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent in July.
Playing with a strained and bruised right elbow, James put a serious bruising on the rims in what was easily the worst playoff performance of his career.
The 25-year-old missed his first seven shots – it took him 2½ quarters to do that in what was another extremely passive effort – and finished the night 3-of-14 from the field while posting 15 points, six rebounds and seven assists.
“I just missed a lot of open shots I’m capable of making,” said James, who declined to use his elbow as an excuse. “You don’t see it out of me a lot. When it happens, it’s a big surprise.”
After at least going to the hole a few times in an 0-of-4 shooting first half – he attempted 10 free throws in that span – James went 3-of-10 from the field and 1-of-2 at the line in the second.
“He had an off night tonight, which is abnormal,” Brown said. “He brings it for us almost every night.”
Defensively, the Cavaliers gave up 100 points over the final three quarters, falling behind by 21 late in the third and by 24 early in the fourth. Somehow, it only got worse after that.
Brown, whose messages no longer appear to be getting through to his players, grasped at straws that hadn’t stirred a drink in weeks, playing Zydrunas Ilgauskas significant minutes in the first half and going even further down the bench to summon Daniel Gibson in the third period.
Core rotation player Delonte West, meanwhile, didn’t play in the second half and J.J. Hickson didn’t play until serious garbage time.
The Cavaliers did get 21 points from Shaquille O’Neal and 14 from Anthony Parker, but those numbers hardly mattered, as Cleveland allowed Boston to shoot .550 from the field and got just nine points from Mo Williams, who right now couldn’t defend a fence post.
“There was little we did right tonight,” Brown said.
While nothing worked for the Cavaliers, everything clicked for the Celtics, who got six 3-pointers and 25 points from Ray Allen, 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists from the previously struggling Paul Pierce, 18 points from Garnett, 16 points (all in the second half) and seven assists from Rajon Rondo and 15 points off the bench from Glen Davis.
“We’ve done nothing,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “We’ve won three games, but we have to win four.”
Down six at intermission, things quickly went from bad to worse for the Cavaliers, as Allen opened the third period by canning a pair of 3-pointers to put the Celtics up 12.
James finally got his first field goal on a breakaway dunk with 6:17 to go in the third period, but two minutes after that the Cavaliers were down 21 when Allen hit yet another 3-pointer.
Rondo didn’t score his first points until the 9:47 mark of the third, but he quickly added 10 more in the quarter as Boston outplayed Cleveland in every aspect to take an 80-63 lead into the fourth.
The Celtics led 50-44 after an extremely odd first half that was highlighted by a 16-0 Boston run with Rondo on the bench.
Though the Cavaliers did nothing extraordinary against him, the Celtics point guard had no points on 0-of-2 shooting, one rebound and three assists at intermission. Despite not having a field goal, James was Cleveland’s leading scorer at halftime after making 8-of-10 free throws.
The Cavaliers led 29-21 when Rondo went to the bench with 9:44 to go in the second quarter – that means the Celtics closed the game on a 99-59 run – but Boston reeled off 16 unanswered points while Cleveland went scoreless for 6:04.
Boston’s big three of Pierce (14), Allen (13) and Garnett (12) had 39 points at intermission, while James didn’t score his first points of the night until hitting two free throws with 10:55 to go in the second period.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.