GAME TIME: Cavs 108, Celtics 88
The most significant incident in the Cavs' win was Shaq's injuring his right thumb. This was even more meaningful than Cleveland finally winning in Boston after nine straight losses, even more auspicious than Mo Williams finally busting loose to drop five treys and score 19 points and right up there with LeBron's 36 points and nine assists.
That's because, for the most part, the Cavs are a much better team without Shaq on the floor.
The numbers bear this out: When Glen Davis tomahawked Shaq's thumb at the 6:58 mark of the second quarter, the Celtics led 42-31 and were rolling. From that moment on, Cleveland outscored Boston 77-46.
For sure, Shaq is most effective against the likes of Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum -- post-up, muscle-up guys who look to score. But against more "ordinary" NBA bigs, Shaq is a liability.
Once he headed for the locker room, the Cavs' game was vastly improved:
• With either Anderson Varejao or J.J. Hickson making the kind of quick-footed baseline rotations that Shaq is simply incapable of doing, Rajon Rondo was suddenly unable to zip his way to the rim. This turn of events was a critical factor in Cleveland's comeback.
• Without Shaq clogging the middle, both Varejao and Hickson had room to move without the ball and ran themselves into numerous layups, dunks and offensive rebounds.
• During Shaq's time on the court, the Celtics shot over 70 percent, with many of their scores coming on unmolested shots in the paint.
• At the same time, the Cavs were unable to keep up with Boston's quick-hitting attack -- and, in fact, looked to be slow, weary and lacking in energy.
The ballgame also presented several other vital lessons for the Cavs:
• During the initial 18 minutes, Cleveland tried in vain to establish other scorers besides LeBron. They even ran a play for Anthony Parker, but neither he nor Antawn Jamison, Williams or Shaq responded with any degree of consistency.
• While all of this was transpiring, LBJ mostly confined himself to shooting jumpers -- winding up making 5-of-14 jays for 13 of his total points. But when none of his sidekicks rose to the occasion, LeBron simply took over the offense -- driving and dishing, driving and scoring and forcing the Celtics to double him. And give LeBron the credit for Williams finally finding the range, since it was LBJ's pass work that set up a bounty of wide-open shots that even the slumping Willliams didn't dare miss.
• Even though the Cavs roster is loaded with talent, LeBron is the team's end-all and be-all.
• After playing in hundreds of relatively meaningless games in Washington, Jamison is simply not ready for the pressure-packed games that Cleveland plays whenever the lights are switched on. He's tight on offense and atrocious on defense. Perhaps he'll ratchet up his game to meet the prime-time demands of his new team, but perhaps he won't.
The runaway loss also provided several lessons for the Celtics:
• With Paul Pierce on the sideline, they must run to win.
• Their half-court offense stagnates because Pierce is the only guy on the team who can create -- and make -- his own shots.
• By no means are their talents equal, but PP is as indispensable to Boston as LBJ is to Cleveland.
• While Rondo, Ray Allen, Rasheed Wallace and Nate Robinson responded to PP's absence with outstanding performances in the first half, Kevin Garnett went belly-up. Yes, he's dragging his leg, and that's certainly a shame. But NBA action is a ruthless business, and whatever the reason, KG's entire game has become a drag.
OK, since Shaq is out for an indeterminate period, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can't go home again for another 30 days, the Cavs will be small in the middle. But Varejao and Hickson will compensate for their other shortcomings with their quickness and their perpetual hustle at both ends of the court.
Indeed, Shaq's presence will become essential only when the Cavs inevitably confront the Magic in the playoffs.