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Published: Sunday, 5/11/2008

Cavaliers cruise: Big first quarter too much for Celtics

ASSOCIATED PRESS

CLEVELAND - The shots didn't drop again for LeBron James, and it hardly mattered. The rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers made most of theirs.

James scored 21 points on another off-shooting night, but

Delonte West scored 21, Joe Smith had 17 and the Cavaliers raced to a large, early lead in Game 3 in a 108-84 victory last night over the road-challenged Boston Celtics to pull within 2-1 in their playoff series.

West, who spent three seasons wearing Celtic green and white, carried the scoring load for the Cavaliers, who are attempting to become the 14th team in NBA history to come back from an

0-2 deficit and win a best-of-seven series.

They've had practice at it.

Last year, the Cavaliers lost the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals to Detroit before beating the Pistons four in a row to advance to the finals for the first time. After dropping Games 1 and 2 in Boston, Cleveland needed James (8-of-42 in the losses) to shoot his way out of a slump.

James was only 5-of-16 from the floor, but his teammates stepped it up, going a combined 32-of-54 (59 percent) to tighten the second-round series. Cleveland roared to a 32-13 lead after one quarter, led by 17 at half, 16 after three and easily withstood a few Boston counter punches.

The Celtics remain lost on the road, and Game 4 is tomorrow in Cleveland.

They've yet to win outside of Massachusetts during this postseason, not an encouraging sign for a team with its sights on a 17th league title. The Celtics went 0-3 in Atlanta during the first round as the Hawks averaged 100.7 points and shot 47.6 percent in three home games.

Kevin Garnett scored 17 points, Paul Pierce 14 and Ray Allen 10 as Boston's Big 3 of superstars combined for 41 points.

But the trio was no match for Cleveland's Fab Four of West, Wally Szczerbiak, Smith and Ben Wallace - all acquired in deals at the Feb. 21 trading deadline - who totaled 63 points, 20 rebounds and six 3-pointers. West made four 3s, Smith went 7-of-8 and Wallace, who wasn't expected to play because of an inner ear infection, gave Cleveland an inside presence while guarding Garnett.

The Cavs played a nearly flawless first quarter. They shot 65 percent (13-of-20), had 11 assists on those field goals and didn't commit a turnover. Beyond that, Cleveland didn't rely on James to carry them, as six other Cavs combined for 27 of the club's 32 points.

At halftime, James only had seven points but the Cavs were shooting 66 percent (19-of-29) and moving the ball on offense, something coach Mike Brown has insisted is key if his team plans to advance past the league's best defensive squad.

Before the game, James said a few "easy baskets" might help him get started.

His first one was both simple - and strong.

With the Cavs leading 10-4, James poked the ball away from Pierce near the free throw line and broke free for a two-handed, stare-at-the-rim dunk that sent Cleveland's hyped crowd into a frenzy. Wallace scored twice underneath and Szczerbiak's two free throws put the Cavaliers up 18-6.

James' next basket was a 3-pointer during a 9-0 spurt that Cleveland a 27-8 lead on its way to a 19-point advantage after one.

The Cavaliers were leading 39-17 in the second quarter when this series had its first moment of tension.

As he was driving to the basket, James was grabbed around the neck by James Posey and fell awkwardly in the lane. He laid face down on the floor as both teams exchanged angry words and Anderson Varejao and Posey earned technicals for their exuberance.

The officials huddled and gave Posey a flagrant-1 for the hard foul, which seemed to deter the teams from more rough stuff.

Cleveland maintained its double-digit lead throughout the second half, and closed out a game it had to have. No team has ever overcome an 0-3 deficit, something the Cavs don't have to worry about now.

Varejao, who would have started if Wallace couldn't go, left in the second quarter with a bruised right knee. He came back and played 2 1/2 minutes in the third.



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