BOSTON -- For a while -- actually, for more than half the game -- the Boston Celtics looked all the part of a team that was ready to make a run on the front-runners. Then, the front-runners did what they do best -- clamped down on defense and showcased their enviable depth -- and it was over. Just like that.
Boston's 108-88 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night wasn't a total shocker. The Celtics were without Paul Pierce. They were playing the best team in the league. And the Cavs got a break when the defensively challenged Shaquille O'Neal left the game in the second quarter with a sprained thumb. (Upon seeing the injury report announcing that Shaq would not return, a Celtics official, who shall go unnamed, quipped, "I don't know whether that's good or bad for us." Yup, Shaq, it has come to that.)
But this was less about Shaq's absence and more about the Cavaliers establishing their defensive dominance in a tour-de-force second half -- and an absolutely suffocating fourth quarter. By the time Mo Williams was knocking down uncontested 3s in a 35-14 fourth-quarter pasting, Rajon Rondo's electric first quarter (12 points, 6 assists) was long gone and forgotten. So, too, was another good shooting night from Ray Allen (21 points on 7-of-13). The Cavaliers took control of this one with LeBron James (36 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds) on the bench. When he returned with 7:49 left, it was a six-point game. It would soon digress into a runaway.
"They label me a closer because I close games,'' James said. "I didn't have to do that."
Asked about the Cavs' strong bench, James said, simply, "It's a good problem to have.''
This was, however, only the second win since the All-Star break for the Eastern Conference leaders. Before the game, Cavs coach Mike Brown wondered when his team's defensive presence would return. He had seen slippage in the past two weeks.
The Cavs defend and win, and they had been doing little of either lately, having lost three straight games before a win Tuesday night. Their defense had been, well, Sacramento East at times. (They allowed the Knicks and Nets to shoot 50 percent or better against them, although they won both games.) Brown wanted them to be more physical. He talked about basics like boxing out and switching, things his team was not doing. "We can't allow that,'' he said, referring to uncontested drives to the basket.
And he had to be wondering whether he was talking to a wall after watching his team in the first half, when it surrendered 56 points on 60 percent shooting. Rondo did whatever he pleased, including driving to the basket, until Brown was forced to put James on the Celtics point guard in the latter stages of the half. Allen connected from everywhere. Rasheed Wallace appeared to even be interested. The Celtics looked dominant. But here was the dirty little secret: The lead was only eight.
"That was huge,'' James said. "They shoot 60 percent, and we're only down eight? That gave us enough confidence."
Had you switched over to the Olympics at that point -- and if you are a Celtics fan, in retrospect, it would have been a wise move -- the news coming across the crawl would have been shocking. Not so much that the Cavs came back to win. But that the Celtics finished the game with 88 points.
Eighty-eight points? The Celtics made nine baskets in the second half, three in the fourth quarter. They made 24 baskets in the first half, 14 in the first quarter. They scored 32 points in the second half. They had 31 in the first quarter. Have we made our point?
"There was no panic [at halftime],'' Brown said. "We knew 24 minutes was a long time. We started to chip away and chip away, and when that happens, there's a different feeling for both teams. You could sense the uneasiness in the crowd."
Or, as Cavs newcomer Antawn Jamison said, "I was telling the coaches that I've been coming into this building for a long time and I've never seen the fans leave so early. That was something."
This is what the championship Celtics of two seasons ago did. They stifled the opponent and squeezed the life out of it with defensive pressure. This is what the championship-driven Cavaliers want to do in 2009-10 -- and they sure did it in the second half.
Right now, there's no confusing the two teams. The Cavaliers have a 7 ½-game lead. They won in Boston for the first time since Jan. 3, 2007, when Kevin Garnett was in Minnesota and Greg Oden replica jerseys dotted the Garden stands. That was nine straight losses, including the 2008 playoffs.
"We feel like we have to go through them,'' coach Doc Rivers said, taking the optimist view. "And for them to get what they want, they have to go through us. Something's got to give, at some point."
And right now, it looks like it's the Celtics who are giving -- and the Cavaliers who are taking off.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.