BOSTON -- The Celtics were better early, then LeBron James and the Cavaliers blew right by them.
Story of this game.
Story of the season.
James had 36 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, Mo Williams scored 14 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, and Cleveland dominated the second half in a 108-88 victory Thursday night.
Unable to stop Rajon Rondo or the Celtics in the first quarter, the Cavaliers turned up the defense in the fourth, limiting the Celtics to 3-of-21 shooting and snapping a nine-game losing streak in Boston, counting playoffs.
"We haven't had much success here," James said. "We've lost nine times coming into this building. So it gets the monkey off our backs. But don't read too much into it."
James kept the Cavaliers in it for three quarters on a night they lost Shaquille O'Neal to a first-half thumb injury, then Williams made four 3-pointers when Cleveland outscored Boston 35-14.
"I think in the second half our level of aggressiveness really stepped up on both ends of the floor," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "There was no panic among our guys. We knew 24 minutes was a lot of time. We just started chipping away from it."
Ray Allen scored 21 points, and Rondo had 19 points and 11 assists for the Celtics, who badly missed injured All-Star Paul Pierce (right thumb) when their offense went stagnant in the final 1 1/2 quarters.
"They were a lot more aggressive in the second half. They made adjustments to stop Rondo's penetration," Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said. "We knew it was a real big test. We can't play one half and relax."
Cleveland improved to 20-10 on the road, tying Boston for the best in the NBA, and avenged a 95-89 home loss on opening night.
That came back when Boston looked like the class of the Eastern Conference while the Cavaliers struggled early. But the Celtics have been unable to stay healthy and Cleveland has left the Celtics and everyone else in the East behind, opening a 5 1/2-game lead over Orlando while dropping Boston 7 1/2 games back in a tie with Atlanta.
This game followed a similar path. Boston was much better early inside a rocking TD Garden, but most of the green-clad fans were gone before the final minutes after the deeper Cavaliers wore them down.
Cleveland outscored Boston 60-32 in the second half, allowing just five baskets in the final 17 1/2 minutes.
"When they were scoring that much, it was deflating. Took our wind away," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "We went from being a team with stops and attacking to the team being attacked."
The Cavaliers trailed for nearly all the first three quarters, then quickly took control in the fourth. Williams' basket gave them the lead for good at 79-78 with 9:13 to play, and he drilled consecutive 3-pointers to extend it to 93-83 with 5 1/2 minutes remaining.
James had the next four points to make it a 14-point game in another big night against one of the NBA's most storied franchises. He came in averaging 30.2 points against Boston, just shy of Michael Jordan's 30.7 mark for best in NBA history.
He had to do a little extra after O'Neal appeared to be hurt when Celtics forward Glen Davis whacked his hand while trying to block a shot with about 7 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter. O'Neal left for good about 30 seconds later, and the report said he had a "significant" right thumb sprain.
And they are without a backup center for now after trading Zydrunas Ilgauskas to Washington before the trade deadline. The Wizards waived Ilgauskas on Thursday after reaching agreement on a buyout, and he could decide to rejoin his former teammates after waiting the mandatory 30 days.
Cleveland had struggled defensively since the trade, a pattern that continued Thursday. The Celtics made 10 of their first 13 shots, with Rondo making five of the baskets and assisting on the other five. His layup with 33 seconds left gave Boston a 31-21 lead after one quarter.
Newcomer Nate Robinson's 3-pointer extended the lead to 40-27 with 9:46 remaining in the half. The lead was still double digits after Allen nailed two 3s late in the half, and Boston carried a 56-48 lead into the break.
The Cavaliers limited the Celtics to 6-of-20 shooting in the third quarter, trimming the lead to 74-73 after James made a free throw with 0.4 seconds left.
Former Celtics forward Leon Powe made his season debut to a nice ovation in the final minute of the first half. He was a key reserve on the Celtics' championship team, but tore the ACL in his left knee during last season's playoffs and wasn't re-signed. ... O'Neal and Davis, former LSU players, chatted before the game in the Cleveland locker room. Davis informed O'Neal that the Tigers were no longer winless in the SEC, having beaten Arkansas on Wednesday.