Cavs Floor Celts

March 3, 1999

   CLEVELAND - They did not lose because of a bad call, bad free throw shooting, or Paul Pierce's very bad night (0 for 11, 2 points). The Celtics are 6-7 this morning because they went to Gund Arena and decided not to guard any Cavaliers.

There are some complicated elements to this game. But you don't need a Basketball Think Tank to understand why the Celtics lost, 116-99, before 12,906 shocked fans. A team that shoots 58 percent from the field and takes 49 free throws is probably going to win. 

And about those shocked fans. You'd be shocked, too, if you were a Cavs fan and watched your team surpass 100 points for the first time all season. But, most likely, you are a Celtics fan. So when you look at that "116," it should scare you more than Pierce's 25-minute display of putting up shots that were too long, too short, and too wide. That's because the Cavs are in the NBA's ultra-slow lane, playing with their hazard lights on at all times. They scored 73 points in a loss to the Celtics at the FleetCenter last month. Last night, they had reached that number early in the third quarter.

Maybe the Cavs' explosion was a one-night thing. But Rick Pitino isn't worried about them. He is concerned about the Celtics and their defense. It is not a one-night problem.

"I think it's defensive talent," the coach said. "I think we've got very good offensive talent. I think we're very lacking in defensive talent. It's not effort. I think they are willing to work hard, but I think it's defensive talent, which is a talent. That's what keeps Bruce Bowen on the team. It's a lack of defensive talent that's hurting us right now. It's hurting us on the backboard. It's hurting us in the halfcourt game."

The coach was not finished. Before he spoke those words, he had looked at an alarming stat sheet. It showed that starting point guard Brevin Knight didn't even play for the Cavs because of a sprained right finger. The Cavs had said Knight would be available if they needed him. They never needed him, despite trailing, 20-9, in the first quarter. The sheet also showed every Cav starter making at least half of his field goal attempts.

So, you ask, what about the Pitino Press?

"You can run around and press all you want and camouflage your weaknesses, but you're pressing on weakness instead of strength," he said.

Antoine Walker agreed. He said the Celtics are trying.

"You'll never be able to knock our effort," said the Celtics captain, who had 17 points and 5 rebounds before fouling out. "We're always going to try."

But as Kenny Anderson said earlier this week, you can have all the heart in the universe and still not be able to make a jump shot. Or defend. Last night the Celtics could do neither, shooting 41 percent and giving up 56 points by halftime.

Before the half, Pitino had waved his hand in disgust at the Boston players on the floor and said, "OK, you can't press. Forget it."

Three minutes into the third quarter, he pulled all his starters and went to the Bomb Squad, his pressing unit. They watched a 15-point lead swell to 20 before cutting it in half. But they defended and pressed so much that they couldn't score.

And the Cavs? They scored and scored. Shawn Kemp had 22 points, Bob Sura had 19, and Wesley Person 17 off the bench. Person had 14 in the second quarter, his season high. The points for the game were a Cavs season high. The points at halftime were a season high . . .

"We missed a couple of rotations," said Ron Mercer, who led the Celtics with 22 points, "but you have to give Cleveland a lot of credit."

Pitino will give the Cavs credit in some areas. Their coaches get credit for studying Pierce's moves and screaming out "Baseline!" each time he touched the ball. "I noticed they were trying to cut that off," the rookie said. They also get credit for making 6 of 10 3-point attempts.

But Pitino also knows that the trading deadline is less than two weeks away. He has to ask himself if this team, as constructed, will grow into better defenders. And if the answer is no, he has to ask himself if he wants to make a trade. He has said that he does have an opportunity to secure a big man. Will he make a move?

If he watches tapes of last night's game, he probably will. His team cut the deficit to 7 in the third quarter, but it didn't have the defense to make a serious run. And yes, they were outrebounded, too.

Cavs coach Mike Fratello said he knows how Pitino feels about his team's offensive struggles. But offense was the last concern on Pitino's mind.

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