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The Cavaliers couldn't slow Rajon Rondo.
Shaquille O'Neal took care of that.
Cleveland's humongous center flattened Rondo on a drive to the basket in the closing minutes, a hard - and mostly clean - two-handed foul that may have contributed to the Cavaliers' 101-93 win as much as LeBron James' 35 points or Mo Williams' surprising slam dunk over Paul Pierce.
As Rondo, who finished with 27 points and 12 assists, approached the basket, O'Neal came across the lane and knocked the Celtics' speedy point guard to the floor. After spending a few minutes gathering himself and making sure all his limbs were still functioning, Rondo missed the first free throw before making the second.
He didn't score again.
"Shaq has always fouled me like that," Rondo said Sunday as the Celtics prepared for Monday's Game 2 at Quicken Loans Arena. "That's going to happen, but I'm still going to get up."
The Celtics led by 11 in the third quarter of Game 1 and would be up in this best-of-seven series if not for a second-half fizzle that can be partially blamed on their aging roster as well as some blown opportunities late in the game.
With Cleveland leading 92-91, Ray Allen missed a 3-pointer when he was accidentally bumped by referee Jason Phillips. Boston trailed 94-91 when Pierce tried a short jumper that bounced off the rim. Kevin Garnett was alone underneath for an easy putback but misfired.
The Celtics had their chances. They missed them.
"We had some good looks at it," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "Jason Phillips blocked Ray's wide-open 3 one time. It's not Jason's fault, but Rondo got it to Ray in a great spot and the official ran into him. Kevin had a point-blank look. (Kendrick Perkins) bobbled a couple. I'm not that upset late in the game with some of the shots we had. I was just really upset at our guys with the execution and the next pass.
"We were so good in the first half. I just thought we settled. We'll take those same shots."
However, they may not be as available as in the opener.
After Williams was abused by Rondo (19 points, eight assists) in the first half of Game 1, the Cavaliers switched it up and put Anthony Parker on Rondo, who attempted just two shots after halftime. Parker's length made it tougher for Rondo to turn the corner and find open teammates, and Pierce certainly didn't help by going 1 for 10 from the field in the second half.
Rivers was more upset with his team's lack of floor spacing and casual attitude on offense.
"A lot of it wasn't Rondo's fault," he said. "I thought Rondo kept pushing the ball up the floor, but there were three guys behind him."
In the first half, the Celtics looked like their old selves, opening an 11-point lead with tenacious defense and offensive execution.
In the second half, they just looked old.
With Rondo and Glen Davis in foul trouble, Rivers went deeper into his reserves but got little help from them. Rasheed Wallace, 36, scored two points on 1-of-5 shooting in 13 minutes and was beaten to several loose balls by Cleveland forward Anderson Varejao. Michael Finley, 37, didn't score in three meaningless minutes.
The Cavs' depth and overall athleticism was too much for Boston to handle in the third quarter, which the Cavaliers closed with a 21-9 flurry, triggered by Williams' unexpected dunk over Pierce - a play perhaps symbolic of the Cavs' fresher legs and rise as favorites.
For the Celtics to win, they can't count on Rondo to carry the scoring load. He only averaged 13.7 points during the regular season, but with Boston's Big Three of Pierce, Allen and Garnett shooting a combined 8 of 27 in the second half of Game 1, Rondo had to do more than he could.
Pierce knows he needs to be more assertive.
"I need to be going to the basket a little more," he said. "I was a little disappointed only going to the free-throw line twice. I think I need to be a little more aggressive, but I'd still take the shots I took in that game. We feel like (Game 1) is a game we let slip away by little things. We've just got to clean those things up, come back with the same type of energy and with a little more perfection to our game and we'll be OK."
The Cavaliers, who traveled to Akron on Sunday to help James accept his second straight MVP award, may let Rondo score again as long as they limit the Big Three's production. And they know that if Rondo dares venture inside the lane that O'Neal, who outweighs him by 150 pounds, will be waiting.
Rondo, though, said he's not worried about another encounter with Shaq.
"It's not him," he said "It's the floor."
This program aired on May 3, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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