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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Celtics crash Cavaliers party

Debut of the LeBron James-Shaquille O'Neal show doesn't go quite as Cleveland had hoped.

October 28, 2009|MARK HEISLER | ON THE NBA

CLEVELAND — Tough night in Witness land.

If Shaquille O'Neal is supposed to get the Cleveland Cavaliers over the top and keep LeBron James here, let's just say the local townspeople have a lot to look forward to.

The faithful in the "Witness" T-shirts didn't see it Tuesday night, even if the season started and the league, eager for good TV, served up the Boston Celtics, as if on a platter. Neither team had won on the other's court in the last two seasons when they became arch-rivals, but that ended with the Celtics' 95-89 victory at Quicken Loans Arena.

The James-O'Neal tandem combined for 48 points, but James had 38 of them.

O'Neal scored six points in the first seven minutes, making all three of his shots . . . and four points the rest of the way, making two of his last eight shots.

No, witnesses, this isn't quite the O'Neal you heard about all those years.

Boston General Manager Danny Ainge, who once compared a younger O'Neal and a way younger Kobe Bryant to Wilt Chamberlain playing with Michael Jordan, was asked about the new tandem,

"I'm just glad Shaquille is 37," said Ainge, laughing.

This is nothing like the Celtics' turnaround when they put their new Big Three together effortlessly two seasons ago, rocketing to a 29-3 start with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen looking as if they were born to play with each other.

Likewise, Rasheed Wallace, this season's acquisition, fits easily into everything the Celtics do.

By his nature, O'Neal is different. If he's hardly what he was as a Laker from age 24-32, there are no others like him. Whatever you were doing, after O'Neal arrives you're no longer doing it the same way.

Tuesday night started, as advertised or ballyhooed, with O'Neal making his first three shots, as the Cavaliers shot off to a 17-4 lead.

They were up, 21-12, at the 4-minute 54-second mark when Coach Mike Brown sent in their former starting center, Zydraunas Ilgauskas, for O'Neal, pulling the plug on the evening.

With home fans booing O'Neal's departure and Ilgauskas' teammates looking similarly un-enthused about going back to their old pick-and-pop game, the Cavaliers stopped doing much of anything.

The Celtics got out of the first quarter and turned it around in the second, going up, 51-45, by halftime and pushing their lead to 15 points in the third quarter.

"I've got to get a feel for his minutes," Brown said of taking O'Neal out. "This is the first time Shaq has played into the fourth quarter. . . . I didn't do a good job of substituting tonight."

Said O'Neal, asked whether he wanted to stay in: "Yeah. I'd rather stay in and look over at him [Brown] and tell him I need a rest. But we're still learning each other."

Not that this break-in period was a surprise to the Cavaliers. Whether it was their swine flu scare, when several players, including James, got sick, or deference to O'Neal's age, Brown eased up on his players, even giving them two days off after getting hammered by the Celtics in their last exhibition game Oct. 20.

"This game doesn't define who's the best team in the East or the best team in the league at this point," James said before the game.

"We're just going to try to do what we're working on in practice. . . . It could take a few weeks and I'm not saying we're going to lose ballgames in that span. But as far as us meshing and having a rotation down and having the same momentum going every game like we had last year might take us some time, because we have new guys."

Then came the first night of the meshing process.

With the Celtics up by 15 points, James, who played 45 minutes, led a late rally in his old single-handed style but it fell short.

James isn't supposed to have to do it alone any more, but it's early, the Cavaliers and their witnesses hope.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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