Garnett, Celtics Begin NBA Title Defense, Beat LeBron James and Cavaliers

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

BOSTON, Oct. 28 -- Tears streaming down both cheeks, Paul Pierce accepted the Larry O'Brien championship trophy from Boston Celtics legend John Havlicek and hoisted it up to the approval of a boisterous, sellout crowd at TD Banknorth Garden. Pierce, the NBA Finals most valuable player last June, and his teammates received their gaudy, diamond- and emerald-encrusted championship rings. Ray Allen later helped raise banner No. 17 to the rafters and Kevin Garnett tapped his forehead to salute it before Pierce, still overcome with emotion, thanked family, friends and late Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach in a lengthy speech that would have warranted exit music at any televised awards ceremony.

Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said he encouraged his players to have fun and show their emotion on a night when the most storied franchise in NBA history reflected on winning its first championship in 22 years, "but when I saw [Pierce] crying, I thought 'Oh, Geez. We're done.' "

Rivers had heard the horror stories about opening the season with a ring ceremony, estimating that at least 30 people told him, "Don't forget the Miami game," when the Heat opened its 2006 title defense with a 42-point home loss to Chicago. But while the Celtics got off to an understandably sluggish start against the Cleveland Cavaliers -- falling behind by 11 in the first half -- they recovered in time for a 90-85 victory on Tuesday night.

"It was difficult for me. It was very emotional," Pierce said after scoring a game-high 27 points. "It was important that we got ourselves together. You don't want to have a ring ceremony and a loss. That just takes all the air out of it."

The game got off to an ominous start: Garnett air-balled a baseline jumper, but the Celtics managed to pull out a win despite Garnett and Allen combining to miss 17 of 24 shots while scoring 19 points. Point guard Rajon Rondo scored 14 bruising points, hitting the deck almost every time he left his feet, while Leon Powe (13 points) and Tony Allen (11 points) provided inspired play off the bench. "I'm pretty much known for coming in the Garden and having a helluva a first shot," said Garnett, who nearly broke the backboard with his first shot in his Celtics debut last season. "If we're going to base anything off that, we're in good shape. It was good to get that out of the way. It's the start of the '08-'09 season for us. We're not going to talk about [last season] no more."

While the Celtics looked back on a season in which the all-star trio of Pierce, Garnett and Allen inspired the greatest turnaround in league history -- going from 24 wins to a championship -- the Cavaliers avoided the theatrics, staying behind in the locker room. Cavaliers all-star forward LeBron James didn't want any part of watching another team receiving something he desperately wants. Plus, James said: "That's for the fans. They probably couldn't see over us if we was standing on the court."

James led his team with 22 points, but was unable to spoil the Celtics' celebration as he missed a layup and two crucial free throws in the final 40 seconds. The Cavaliers' season began where it ended last season, in a memorable Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, when James scored 47 points and Pierce had 41. Of that Game 7 loss, James said, "I let go of it quickly."

The Cavaliers, the 2006-07 Eastern Conference champions, tweaked their roster in the summer, acquiring combo guard Maurice Williams from the Milwaukee Bucks. Williams, who averaged more than 17 points and six assists in each of the past two seasons, was brought in to relieve James of some of the scoring load. Williams had 12 points in his Cavaliers debut.

James led Team USA to an Olympic gold medal this summer and said the victory enhanced his hunger for an NBA championship. "It's tough to put the same challenges on this team that you do with the USA team, because you have 11 of the greatest guys in the world," James said. "We have high expectations this year and we are going to approach this season like that."

The Celtics are looking to win back-to-back championships for the first time since 1968-69.

"I'm very happy it's over," Rivers said of the season opener, "but not in the negative sense. I told them, 'We deserved this night. We worked for this night. We earned this night, and only one team in the world can have this night -- and it's us. So, whatever happens, happens. But now I'm glad we can concentrate on basketball."

Rivers said he has no idea what he's going to do with his ring. "It's absolutely beautiful," he said. "I would like a friend for it."

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