BOSTON &

LeBron James had one of the worst games of his career, shooting 2-for-18 and missing three layups and a 3-pointer in the final minute.




Not that Boston's Paul Pierce or Ray Allen were doing any bragging, either, after combining to match James miss-for-miss.




"I can't play any worse than this, and we got a win," Pierce said Tuesday night after scoring just four points but limiting James to 12 as the Celtics beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 76-72 in Game — of the Eastern Conference semifinals.




"Ray can't play as bad as he did, or LeBron," Pierce said. "So I think we're setting ourselves up for an exciting series."




Kevin Garnett scored 28 points to make up for the off night by the other two members of Boston's Big Three, including the go-ahead basket on a turnaround hook shot with 22 seconds left. Then he watched as James drove an open path through the lane but finger-rolled the potential tying shot off the inside of the rim with 8.5 seconds left.




"I missed a lot of shots I know I can make," James said, staring at the stat sheet incredulously after scoring just two points in the second half and missing his last six shots. "I missed layups. Those layups I've made my whole life."




Pierce was 2-for-14 from the field, but he also drew two offensive fouls while guarding James. Allen was even worse offensively, going 0-for-4 from the field for his first scoreless performance in 852 games since 1997.




"That is why we have three superstars," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, who had 12 rebounds.




Boston point guards Rajon Rondo and Sam Cassell scored 15 and 13 points to help the Celtics protect the homecourt advantage that helped win their first-round series against Atlanta in seven games and could take them all the way to their NBA-record 17th championship.




Game 2 of the best-of-seven series with Cleveland is Thursday night.




Only once in his career has James made fewer than two baskets &

in a Dec. 29, 2004, game against Houston when he missed all five shots in just 17 minutes. "I fractured my cheekbone," he said immediately when asked about it.




He'll remember this one, too.




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 finished with nine rebounds, nine assists and 10 turnovers.




"He had a tough night, and he is entitled to it," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "Knowing him, he will definitely bounce back in Game 2."




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.




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.




Notes:




"I just thought that LeBron should have been higher," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of the MVP voting, 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 51/2 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 before going to the bench in the first quarter.