CLEVELAND -- They circled this game on their calendar months ago. On Friday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers checked it off as another win.
Their biggest in a season getting special.
LeBron James scored 38 points, harassed Paul Pierce all over the floor and strengthened his case to be the league's MVP front-runner as the Cavaliers, playing with a bottled-up intensity reserved for the playoffs, improved to 19-0 at home by beating the staggering Boston Celtics 98-83 on Friday night.
James scored 23 in the second half. He added seven rebounds, six assists, four steals, three blocks and made Pierce's life miserable for 35 minutes.
After the Cavs had built their lead to a comfortable 20 points in the second half, Cleveland fans began chanting "M-V-P!"
There was no debate this night on who was the best player -- or which was the better team.
"We want to continue to protect our home court and we want to continue to get better. Tonight I think we got better," James said. "We don't want to take a step back because we got a big picture and a big goal. You don't want to waste a game. We got really better tonight."
With James leading the way, the Cavaliers handed the Celtics their second-worst loss of the season and dropped them to 2-7 since opening a league-record 27-2. Boston had to resort to fouling Ben Wallace to try to trim Cleveland's lead in the fourth quarter, but the Hack-A-Ben strategy was hardly effective as Cleveland's forward, a 44 percent free-throw shooter, made 5-of-10 free throws after being fouled on five straight possessions.
When he was taken out, Wallace shot a menacing stare toward Boston coach Doc Rivers, who pulled his starters with the outcome decided in the final minutes.
"We're good," Pierce said. "That's the God's honest truth. Nobody likes losing, but we're going to stay positive. That's our strength as a team."
Pierce, who came in averaging 19.5 points, was held to 11 on 4-of-15 shooting. Boston's leading scorer only got into double digits when James turned him over to Wally Szczerbiak in the fourth. Before that, James wouldn't let Pierce get out of his sight, chasing up, down and around the 94-foot court.
James refused to take full credit for stopping Pierce, but he deserved it.
"You can't continue to give him one look because of how good of a player he is," James said. "My teammates did a good job of letting me know where they were behind me and helping me out. I didn't do it by myself. It was a whole team concept."
"We have some money in the bank with the 19-game winning streak," Rivers said. "We're making a withdrawal we don't want to make right now, but we're still 29-9. This is a tough stretch. I don't like it. But we're going to right the ship. When? I don't know."
The win was vital to the Cavaliers, who lost Game 7 in Boston in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals and want to secure home-court advantage during the playoffs this season. The first tiebreaker if the teams end up with the same record is head-to-head matchups.
James scored 13 in the third quarter, but it was his swarming defense -- especially on Pierce -- that allowed the Cavaliers to take a 72-60 lead into the fourth.
With James cutting off his driving lanes and keeping a hand in his face, Pierce missed all four shots he attempted in the third. After misfiring on a long 3-pointer just before the horn, a frustrated Pierce turned and said something to fans sitting in courtside seats. They just laughed as he walked to the bench.
Cleveland and Boston have developed a healthy, heated rivalry, something Rivers wishes was more prevalent around the league.
"I think you have to play a team in the playoffs to get a better rivalry, like us with Cleveland," Rivers said. "I think that's what starts it. You see a team every night, seven times, the next time you see them in the next regular season, you can't love each other anymore."
Cleveland's fans were fired up and in playoff form before the opening tip and the team cranked up the pregame pyrotechnics inside Quicken Loans Arena to levels not seen since last season's Boston series. The added flames may have been requested by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who was unable to make it down from his home in Detroit because of heavy snow.
The Cavaliers made their first six shots from the field and finished the first quarter 13-of-18 -- James had four of the five misses -- to lead 33-23 after one.
Cleveland is the first team to win each of its first 19 at home by at least four points since Philadelphia in 1966-67. ... James hasn't decided whether he'll play on the next Olympic team at the 2012 Games in London. Right now, he can't even think about it. USA Basketball's Jerry Colangelo, who put together the 2008 gold medal-winning team, is expected to ask some potential Olympians of their interest at next month's All-Star game in Phoenix. "I won't be ready to answer that," said James, who was asked if he would play in Turkey at the 2010 world championships. "I won't be ready answer that either. That's like next month." ... Rivers joked that Cleveland wasn't always a hostile environment for visitors. "The day LeBron was drafted made it a tougher place to play," he said with a laugh. "I'm just going to leave it there." ... The Cavs play six of their next seven on the road, including four on a West Coast trip.
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