Scrappy Varejao gets to Celtics

CLEVELAND -- The Boston Celtics entered Sunday's showdown against the Cleveland Cavaliers with an 18-18 record over their past 36 games.

How appropriate. Fifty-fifty. That ended up being the story of the game.

With a chance to jump-start a stagnant season, the Celtics watched the Cavaliers outwork them, particularly on the glass, where the hosts turned 17 offensive rebounds into a staggering 27 second-chance points.

Fueled by the grittiness of players like Anderson Varejao, who came off the bench to score 15 first-half points, the Cavaliers never let Boston get within arm's reach and emerged with a 104-93 triumph at Quicken Loans Arena.

Varejao, who terrorized Boston in helping Cleveland rally from a double-digit deficit for a big win in Boston last month, finished with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting with 10 rebounds (six offensive). He had a quiet second half, but he left a lasting impression.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers used the word "frustrating" four times while describing Varejao's impact.

"Fifty-fifty [balls], second-chance points, missed layups," said Rivers, listing the key maladies in his team's loss. "It's frustrating for me. In a lot of ways we're close to breaking out and being really good, but it's also frustrating that -- one guy completely dominated this game in Varejao.

"Second-[chance baskets], loose balls, activity [around the basket] and getting under our skin. He's doing what he should do. That was very frustrating though. Overall, our defense was good, but we kept giving the ball back, even long rebounds -- that was on our guards -- but even then it was Varejao slapping the ball up in the air."

The Celtics knew the impact Varejao could have after his exploits in Boston last month. But they still couldn't stop him.

"He came in the game and completely changed the game once again," said Kendrick Perkins. "He did the same thing in Boston. When the game was like 16-16 [Sunday] -- all of a sudden now the score was like 23-[18] in two minutes. He just comes off the bench and kept changing the game. He had a big first half -- 15 and 7 -- that's big for them."

Glen Davis, about the only player off the bench that Rivers commended, expressed disappointment in himself for not matching the energy level of Varejao, especially in hunting down those loose balls.

Davis sent Varejao spilling to the floor late in the third quarter as they chased a loose ball, but it might have been too late. Boston was in the midst of a drought in which they went more than 10 minutes with just a single field goal, allowing Cleveland to pull away.

The Cavaliers simply wanted it more. The game was a 50/50 ball in the third quarter and the Cavs won the scramble.

"The 50/50, that's a big game for us," said Davis. "We've got to win the 50/50 game. No matter who is on the floor, we've got to win that. We've got to get dirty."

The fact that Cleveland was more physical and the Celtics were outhustled is condemning. With such a pedestrian record over the past 36 games, it would seem the Celtics would be a desperate team, looking to reach its potential before the playoffs arrive.

The Celtics had a chance to quiet Varejao but weren't up to it.

"The only way to stop quickness is to be more physical," said Rivers. "That was the game plan coming in and we never got a body on him. A lot of the time we were standing right there and just didn't get a body on him."

As Rajon Rondo noted, the Cavaliers didn't shoot much better than the Celtics. Boston finished 32-of-80 for 40 percent, while Cleveland was a bucket better at 33-of-80 for 41.3 percent.

But the Cavs found ways to get to those 50/50 balls and that helped Cleveland get to the stripe a whopping 48 times. Not surprisingly, Varejao got there eight times himself.

And if the Cavaliers hadn't missed a whopping 17 free throws, this one would have been a lot uglier, especially considering Cleveland was on top by 17 (89-72) with 7:16 to play.

"One thing that we talked about when playing a good team like this is the 50/50 balls," said Cavs coach Mike Brown. "When you come up with those 50/50 balls, that equates to points or second-chance points like the 27 we had tonight and 17 offensive rebounds. You're going to get some wins."

The Celtics didn't get those balls. Now they're 18-19 over their past 37. Once again, on the wrong side of a 50/50 ball.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.