Commentary

C's give Cleveland that sinking feeling

Originally Published: October 28, 2009
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- By the hundreds -- no, make that by the thousands -- grimaces, glum looks and blank stares adorned the faces of the Cavaliers faithful as they streamed through the exit doors of the Q Arena, all of them having borne witness to an inalienable truth.

Their team was clearly and decidedly the second-best on this floor on this first night of the 2009-10 NBA season, and that dream of a championship parade -- a dream that has gone unfulfilled in this Rust Belt city since 1964 -- will end up being no more than a pipe dream if this is how the Cavs are going to measure up against the Celtics this season.

Quite frankly, they don't measure up. Boston was deeper, Boston was more fluid, Boston was more confident. Practically any way you looked at it, Boston was just plain better.

And those were just the cold, hard facts on a night when the winter chill that lasts on the shores of Lake Erie from November into May hadn't even made it to town yet, a night when folks were struggling to recall when -- or if -- a challenger had made a team coming off a 66-win season look quite so secondary.

But amid all those dour faces in the concourse between the arena and the parking lot, one person stood out among the crowd.

Not for the look on his face, mind you, because that face was buried in a BlackBerry as he searched the Web for his first look at the final box score, but because of the jersey he was wearing: a bright green Boston No. 5 with Kevin Garnett's name stitched across the back.

The Celtics jersey was being worn by 25-year-old Jeff Mershimer, a 6-foot-6 former high school benchwarmer from Youngstown, Ohio, whose former team, Springfield Local, once held LeBron James to the lowest point total of his high school career -- 13 points in a district final game nearly a decade ago.

Mershimer, now a tattooed, long-haired, nose-ring-adorned assistant manager of a clothing store, became a Garnett fan back in the mid-'90s when he first saw Garnett's intensity and leadership. He has remained a fan of that one player ever since, switching his allegiance three years ago from the Timberwolves to the Celtics, staying zealous enough in his hero worship to risk his safety by wearing enemy colors while being outnumbered 1,000 to 1 by the folks around him decked out in wine and gold.

"We were sitting around a bunch of dorks, so they really didn't say anything," Mershimer said to the amusement of his dad, Gary, as the two recalled enduring quite a bit more taunting late last season when the Cavs defeated Boston by 31 points -- not to mention the 10 previous Cleveland-Boston games played in this building, all of which ended with the Cavs on the winning end of the final score.

So there was quite a bit of satisfaction as the first words that came out of Mershimer's mouth when he was asked what he thought of this game from a measuring stick standpoint were the same as those spoken by practically everyone who saw the Celtics' 95-89 victory: "The bench strength was the difference."

Indeed it was.

And indeed it will be, barring a major injury to the Celtics, until Cleveland either makes a move to improve the roster (it should be noted that Stephen Jackson's agent was in the building) or develops a level of cohesion that does not peter out after eight minutes as it did Tuesday late in the first quarter ("Offensively, we're just not on the same page yet," James repeated several times afterward.)

Led by Rasheed Wallace, whose first basket as a Celtic was a 3-pointer over the outstretched, lunging arm of 7-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Boston's reserves outscored Cleveland's 26-10 as both coaches used only four reserves apiece.

Wallace (12 points, including three 3-pointers) and Marquis Daniels (seven points and two assists) were the catalysts in the second quarter when Boston erased a 14-point deficit, and the Celtics were able to play from ahead throughout the third and fourth quarters, led by Pierce (23 points, 11 rebounds), Garnett (13 points, 10 rebounds), Ray Allen (16 points) and Rajon Rondo (eight points, 10 assists, three steals).

"The Celtics need to wisen up and give Rondo that extra $10 million to get his extension done. He deserves it," Mershimer opined, unprovoked.

And when it got to crunch time in the fourth, the Cavs' defenders were unable to efficiently contain the high picks Boston kept setting, luring Shaquille O'Neal out of the paint and letting Pierce use him as a screen to give himself enough room to create something on offense.

Yes, many of those possessions ended in misses. But with Boston playing the same stifling defense that was its trademark two seasons ago when banner No. 17 was won, the Cavs never could make a sustained finishing push.

Truth be told, the energy to make that push probably got sucked out of them when the Celtics, trailing 13-2 just 3:06 into the game, got an earful from Rivers during a timeout.

"I told them in that timeout that we wanted the lead back by halftime," Rivers said.

That was exactly what happened. Boston looked like a different team from that point forward, and the life got sucked out of the building before intermission even arrived.

The Celtics' lead grew as high as 15, and reality was staring Cavs fans in the face.

Their team was not the equal of the visitors who came into their home and acted as if they owned it, and with a few exceptions -- Mershimer among them -- all those Ohioans left the building feeling a whole lot worse about the chances of winning a title in the waning months before James can become a free agent and bolt town -- a move that could very well usher in another 45 years of misery.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.

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