ORLANDO — Over the last month or so, the Boston Celtics have slowly morphed from a team of old broken-down has-beens into a team of rugged junkyard dogs.
It may have escaped some people’s attention outside of Boston as they were eliminating both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James — and jumpstarting their respective forays into the free agent madness — but the Celtics are once again the big bullies on the NBA block.
There were signs of this against the Heat, but they were easily dismissed as a one-man show. They proved it against the Cleveland, but still there was that lingering suspicion, fueled by anonymous leaks and off-the-record grumbling, that all things considered, the Cavs would have rather been elsewhere.
That changes now.
The scoreboard shows that the Celtics escaped with a 92-88 win over the Magic in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday afternoon (click here for the full recap), but the final count didn’t really matter.
What matters is this: The Celtics took the fight to the Magic, who had been living free and easy after two walkover series wins, and they are finally back to being exactly who they said they were.
“I really felt like two days off was just enough,” said Paul Pierce, who, finally liberated from James, scored 22 points. “We felt really good going into this game. The rhythm was there. The defense was there. The passing was there.”
The Magic? Not so much. By the time they rediscovered their playoff legs, the Celtics had a nice, comfortable, double-digit margin to work with. That the Magic were able to make it close speaks to their ability to score in rapid succession with a myriad array of shooters.
“They can score buckets fast,” the rejuvenated Rasheed Wallace said. “The main thing with them is when you have down you got to try to keep them down, you can’t give them no life.”
Over the next 48 hours or so, the following quote from Vince Carter is going to get an awful lot of play.
“I think it was a wake-up call that we really needed in my opinion,” Carter said. “I don't think we were prepared for the level that they were ready to play. They were ready to go from jump, and we weren’t on their level at the beginning.”
This series is just getting started. To a man, the Celtics feel like the Magic will be much sharper in Game 2 on Tuesday, but that’s for Tuesday. On this day, and at this moment, the Celtics are the team to beat.
Here are the three things we learned:
HELLO, DWIGHT HOWARD, WELCOME TO THE MEAT GRINDER
At this time last year, Kendrick Perkins could barely lift his shoulder to put on his shirt without assistance. He was battling Dwight Howard with one good arm and behind him there was no Rasheed Wallace.
There was no Kevin Garnett, which meant Glen Davis was needed elsewhere. There wasn’t even a Shelden Williams who, if asked, would probably offer a whole lot more help than Mikki Moore ever provided.
Perkins has made his defensive bones by being one of the few men alive who can stand in the paint and go to toe-to-toe with Howard, and now he has help.
“It was a team effort,” Perkins said. “I play him differently than Rasheed plays him. Baby plays him different. He does have three different looks that [are] coming at him, and we’re all coming. Know that.”
Perkins supplied the muscle. Wallace brought the savvy and Jedi mind tricks (that he so loves to use against Howard) and Davis brought whatever else was needed. Howard scored 13 points on 3-for-10 shooting. The Celtics put him on the line and made him shoot 12 free throws. He made seven, which is right about his average. They also forced seven turnovers.
“All of them were great,” Doc Rivers said. “Rasheed was phenomenal defensively tonight. That’s what we wanted from him when we signed him.”
The Celtics big men used up 14 fouls — as well as a technical — to mess with Howard, and Perkins was able to stay out of foul trouble in the first half, until he picked up two offensive fouls for moving screens. “Yeah I know,” Perkins said kind of sheepishly. “That’s how I do sometimes.”
But for the most part, Perkins, Wallace and Davis used their fouls in a constructive manner. Not just bothering Howard, but also pounding whoever tried to come into their lane. Perkins played the fourth quarter with five fouls, but that didn’t halt his aggressiveness.
“No let-ups,” he said. “Go out there, not try to save nothing and stay out of foul trouble. You got guys who will come in a do a good job. If I have to give one, I’ll give one. And if not, play hard.”
This won’t get any easier for them. Howard was cool after the game and didn’t carry over any in-game frustration to the press.
“I played like a robot,” he said. “It’s just me. I have to get into a rhythm. Find ways to get the ball and not get into a wrestling match with those guys. I think that playing to their advantage, trying to wrestle with them and fight for position.”
The Celtics have no intention of changing their approach.
“You got to be physical,” Wallace said. “He plays physical. That was the thing we looked at in film over the last two series. Guys just let him do whatever he wanted to do down there, but no. We’re definitely going to fight him. We have a lot of fouls.”
Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to score 45 points, almost half of the Celtics' total. Finally freed from having to defend the likes of Wade and James, the duo seemed free and easy. Perhaps most importantly, they also got to the line 17 times.
But this game wasn’t about offense in any way shape or form. It was about defense and lost in the accolades for the big men, was the job that Kevin Garnett and Davis did on Rashard Lewis, who shot just 2-for-10 and missed all six of his 3-point shots.
“The unsung heroes of the game were Kevin and Baby with the defense they played on Rashard,” Perkins said. “You don’t know how difficult that is to get back to a 3-point shooter that’s 6-foot-10 and can drive the ball.”
Asked if he could remember a time when the Celtics stymied Lewis so effectively, Perkins said, “No, I don’t. This was the best game.”
It was no secret in last year’s playoffs that the Celtics didn’t have an effective counter for Lewis, who wound up torching them repeatedly. This year they have Garnett and after a series in which his focus was on scoring, he can now return to his defensive roots.
Garnett has repeatedly said over the years that Lewis is one of his toughest covers because, as Perkins said, he has the whole game in his repertoire. Not only is he a deadly knockdown shooter, he can also put it on the floor and post-up when necessary.
The Magic didn’t do a lot of posting him up in this game. Maybe it was because of Garnett, or maybe they will go back to that well in Game 2.
“Boston is a good defensive team, one of the best in the league,” Lewis said. “You usually can’t get a shot in the first option. You have to get shots on the third, fourth or fifth option, so you have to move the ball from side to side and explore all your options.”
This is true. It’s also easier said than done. Since the Celtics won’t double-team Howard, the Magic will run a lot of pick-and-rolls. They will anyway, since it’s their basic bread and butter, but the Celtics did a tremendous job of messing that up.
“Because of their pick and roll game, I think that is one of the underlying keys for us defensively is the active hands and deflections,” Rivers said.
Garnett had a poor game offensively, making just four of his 14 shots. It won’t be as easy for him to score in this series because Lewis is an underrated defender and he won’t be able to shoot over him so effortlessly, as he did against the Cavaliers.
But if he can continue to limit Lewis, no one will complain.
SHEED’S TIME OF THE YEAR
It’s taken six months and maybe a little longer, but the world has finally aligned with Rasheed Wallace’s orbit.
In retrospect, his 17 points in Game 2 against the Cavs was a little bit of fool’s gold. Points aren’t what are at a premium for the Celtics big free agent signing. Defense and savvy intelligence are what’s needed now.
“Hell, yeah, this is what I enjoy,” Wallace said. “It’s nut-busting time.”
Let there be no doubt that Wallace bothers Howard. He messes with him, pokes him, elbows him, fouls him hard, pulls the chair, bodies him, arm-bars him; does whatever he can to throw the young superstar off his game. And you know that he loves every minute of it.
He and Howard got double technicals midway through the third quarter, which was evidence that Wallace had drawn Howard into his world. The Celtics will live with those kind of T’s from Wallace, even embrace them.
“He’s a knowledgeable big who has a lot of game,” Rivers said. “I thought today, defensively, he did some old tricks that were just terrific.”
This is why they got him.
“One thing I’ll say about Rasheed and he said it throughout: ‘[It] doesn’t matter what I do during the regular season. I will be judged for what I do in the playoffs,’ ” Rivers said, helpfully cleaning it up a bit. “I didn’t want him to take that literally throughout the season.”
But this is Rasheed’s time now, and it’s becoming clearer by the day, it’s also the Celtics' time.