CLEVELAND (AP) — The window hasn’t closed on the Boston Celtics. It’s still wide open.
Rajon Rondo tied a team playoff record with 19 assists, Ray Allen scored 22 points and the Celtics, showing they’re still very dangerous despite their years, opened a 25-point lead in the fourth and then survived Cleveland’s comeback for a 104-86 win on Monday night to even their semifinal series at 1-1.
After blowing an 11-point lead in the third quarter of Game 1, the Celtics almost squandered a much bigger one. They led 91-66 with 9:08 left, but the Cavs scored 15 straight and pulled within 93-83 on LeBron James’ basket with 3:13 left.
Boston, though, closed with an 11-3 spurt.
James scored 24 and Antawn Jamison 16 for Cleveland, outscored 31-12 in the third.
Game 3 is Friday night in Boston.
The Celtics seemed in control with their 25-point bulge, but they got complacent and found themselves having to scramble down the stretch when they could have been resting up.
“We were playing the clock instead of the game and got stagnant,” Rondo said.
But leading 93-83, Boston regrouped. Rondo and Allen scored, then Kevin Garnett completed a three-point play to make it 100-84, allowing Celtics coach Doc Rivers to finally relax after watching his club play inspired ball most of the way before letting up.
Garnett finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Paul Pierce scored 14.
Rasheed Wallace, called out by Rivers after a lousy opener, added 17 points off the bench as the Celtics stripped the Cavaliers of home-court advantage in the series and gave them four days to think about went wrong.
Two years removed from their 17th NBA title, the Celtics were given little chance of getting past James and the top-seeded Cavs. Despite beating Miami in the first round, Boston was thought to be too old, too slow and too reliant on the aging Big Three of Allen, Garnett and Pierce.
But the trio combined for 54 points with Rondo, the Celtics’ jitterbugging point guard, setting them up with passes from impossible angles. Rondo matched the club’s postseason record for assists set by Hall of Famer Bob Cousy.
Up by four at halftime, the Celtics wasted no time pushing their lead to double digits in the third.
Pierce and Allen hit 3-pointers, and with James tentative — perhaps because of an injured right elbow — and the Cavaliers unable to get anything going on offense or contain Rondo, the Celtics’ lead ballooned to 74-57 on Kendrick Perkins’ basket underneath.
At that point, Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao showed his frustration by blatantly slamming into Allen on a baseline drive. Boston’s guard was sent sprawling and Varejao was assessed a flagrant foul. Allen split the free throws, but on Boston’s next trip, he drained a 3-pointer from deep in the corner to make it 78-57.
Anthony Parker threw up his hands in disgust as the Cavs were unable to stop the Celtics’ surge.
With Boston ahead 83-60 after three, several Cleveland fans left their seats.
“We’re going to the bar,” one said as he bounded up the steps.
He nearly missed a remarkable comeback.
James finally shifted into attack mode, and Cleveland held Boston without a field goal for 5:39 as the Cavs crept back into it.
But Pierce’s basket with 3:29 ended the Celtics’ long dry spell and Boston managed to do enough to prevent a historic meltdown.
James was presented with his second straight MVP trophy before the game by NBA commissioner David Stern, who would like to see the superstar re-sign in Cleveland since it would validate the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement he helped negotiate.
James, though, didn’t appear to be himself and in the third quarter he looked over at Cleveland’s bench and complained about his elbow.
Boston’s bench was a non-factor in Game 1, scoring just 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting. Rivers spent the time in between games saying he would need much more from his reserves in Game 2.
Wallace and Co. delivered early.
Wallace, who was 1 for 5 in the opener, made his first five shots — three of them 3-pointers — as the Celtics opened a 13-point lead early in the second.
NOTES: Varejao left in the third with back spasms and did not return. … Boston leads the league in technicals this postseason. “That was our goal,” Rivers joked. “We are an emotional team.” … Rivers said he sent four plays from Game 1 into the league to be reviewed. He wouldn’t say which ones. “I’m scared to tell you which ones because I may get fined for it,” he said. “But they said I was right.” … Rivers on the hard foul in Game 1, when Shaquille O’Neal sent Rondo crashing to the court: “I thought it was close to an assassination.”