BOSTON - LeBron James couldn't make a basket down the stretch - or at virtually any other time - and the Boston Celtics eked out a 76-72 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers last night in the opener of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Kevin Garnett scored 28 points to make up for an off night for the rest of Boston's Big Three.
James was held to 12 points on 2-for-18 shooting. He missed three drives and a 3-pointer in the final minute.
Game 2 is tomorrow night in Boston.
James scored Cleveland's first basket and then missed his next 10 shots before driving for a layup that cut Boston's lead to 66-65 with 5:34 left.
He then missed his last six shots, including a potential game-tying finger roll that bounced off the inside of the rim with 8.5 seconds left. James scored just two points in the second half while finishing with nine rebounds, nine assists and 10 turnovers.
Rajon Rondo scored all 15 of his points in the first half, and Kendrick Perkins grabbed 12 rebounds for the Celtics. Paul Pierce drew two charging fouls while guarding James but scored just four points on 2-for-14 shooting, and Ray Allen (0-for-4) didn't score.
But at least they had Garnett.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Cavaliers, who shot 31 percent and couldn't make a basket at the end of the game.
Boston led 68-65 when Daniel Gibson hit a 3-pointer to tie it with 3:18 left.
Ilgauskas made a jumper on a feed from James with 90 seconds left, then Garnett hit a fallaway to make it 70-all. James drove against Pierce and flopped to the court while throwing up a desperation layup that wasn't close.
Sam Cassell made two free throws to tie it 72-72; James missed again, but this time Ilgauskas was there to tip it in and tie the game. Garnett moved across the lane to give Boston back the lead, 74-72 as Cleveland called a timeout with 22 seconds left.
James dribbled at the point before finding a lane to the basket, but his shot wouldn't fall and James Posey was fouled after grabbing the rebound. He hit both free throws.
James missed a long but meaningless jumper to punctuate his night.
The Celtics won an NBA-best 66 games in the regular season, and someone will have to beat them at home to derail their hopes of a league-record 17th championship. The Cavaliers managed to stay closed by hitting 22 free throws (to Boston's 14), and by taking advantage of 21 Celtics turnovers.
The Celtics missed their first seven shots - four by Pierce - while Cleveland opened a 5-0 lead. Then Boston scored the next eight, and 16 of 20 points, en route to a 25-15 lead after one quarter.
Garnett scored 12 points in the first quarter and Rondo had eight while Cleveland made just four of 19 shots - a trend that would continue.
Garnett made the first two free throws of the second half - reaching 20 points a minute into the third quarter - but the Cavaliers scored the next 14 points, eight by Ilgauskas. The Celtics went 5:31 without scoring, turning their 45-37 lead into a 51-45 deficit.
Notes: Garnett finished third in the MVP voting and James was fourth. "I just thought that LeBron should have been higher," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, pausing for effect. "We're playing Cleveland, right? As a matter of fact, I thought he should have won." Cleveland shot 18 of the game's first 22 free throws. Cassell was called for a flagrant foul when he kept James from a free throw with 5 1/2 minutes left in the half. The replay seemed to indicate that James enhanced the damage, and the Boston fans let him know they were on to him. Cleveland's Wally Szczerbiak missed his first five shots.
NEW YORK - The NBA admitted Chauncey Billups' 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter of Monday's Detroit-Orlando playoff game should not have counted, but said referees weren't allowed to review instant replay to determine that.
League president Joel Litvin also said the disputed shot, which gave Detroit a 78-76 lead in its 100-93 victory, could not have been replayed after the malfunction was discovered.
"After reviewing the video of last night's Pistons-Magic game, we determined that the play that concluded with Chauncey Billups' 3-point field goal at the end of the third quarter took approximately 5.7 seconds," Litvin said in a statement. "Because there were only 5.1 seconds remaining in the quarter when the play began, the shot would not have counted had the clock continued to run."
Billups was bringing the ball up the court for the Pistons when the clock froze at 4.8 seconds because of a problem with the arena's timing system.40.71455 -74.00713