Published May 01, 2011
The Celtics were stumbling, trying to find some kind of rhythm, as Doc Rivers gathered his players around him during a third quarter timeout. To Rivers, it seemed like a good time to remind them of something he had spent the last week trying to drill into them.
When you play a team loaded with stars, you better play with a plan.
"If you think you're going to beat them in an athletic contest, you're kidding yourself," Rivers told his players.
Point well taken, if delivered just a tad late in a game Sunday that seemed to go Miami's way almost from the opening tip. Because, as good as the Celtics are, they're not going to win a lot of 1-on-1 matchups against the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or even Chris Bosh.
But who would have thought the Celtics would lose the wrestling match, too? They did, and that may be the most difficult thing to turn around as Boston tries to steal one on the road Tuesday night in Miami in an Eastern Conference semifinal that only figures to get better as it goes on.
"You knew it was coming," Rivers said after the Celtics fell 99-90 in Game 1. "All they (the Heat) did the last few days was talk about being physical."
Nothing wrong with that. The playoffs are often a contest of attrition, with only the strongest teams surviving to play another day.
What was more interesting, though, was what Boston's head coach said next.
"To me it wasn't physical," Rivers said. "It was chippy."
What Pierce didn't deserve was to be tossed from the game a few minutes later when he mouthed off after Wade slammed into him on the baseline. The NBA may agree with that upon further review, though that is of little consolation to a Boston team that still had a chance when the player fueling its hopes was ejected with 7 minutes left in the game.
But if Miami had a statement to make, consider it delivered. If the Celtics needed it explained further, consider that done, too.
Backing down isn't an option, no matter how many stars you have on your team.
"I don't really know what chippy is," Bosh said. "A game is a game. The intensity level will go up, guys will start playing more physical."
Lost in the uproar over Pierce's ejection was the fact this probably wasn't going to be Boston's day no matter who was on the court for the Celtics. James said a day earlier that beating Boston was personal for him because he was on the losing end of two playoff series with the Celtics when he played in Cleveland, the last coming last year when he flung his No. 23 jersey into the crowd in what would be his last game as a Cav.
But as good as James was — and he seemed to be everywhere on both sides of the court — the man who lured him to Miami was even better. Wade outscored the entire Boston starting five by himself in the first half with 23 points, and was playing with just as much intensity in the fourth quarter when he put a shoulder down and went into Pierce, who didn't take it kindly.
"Paul had some words for me, the referee thought it was too much," Wade said. "We move on."
Pierce apparently decided he had spoken too much for the day and did not speak to the media. But crew chief Dan Crawford said Pierce's second technical — which won him automatic ejection — came because he swore at Wade.
"And in the rulebook, that is a verbal taunt," Crawford said.
Expect some more taunting as this series moves on, because these are two teams that boxing promoter Don King would love. They just don't like each other, and both seem to think they have something to prove in a semifinal that figures to be played throughout with the intensity of a championship series.
In reality, the Celtics don't have anything to prove. They've been to the finals two of the last three years, winning one title against the Lakers before losing last year. They're loaded with veterans who have played in and won big games, and losing to the Heat would be the end of the season, but hardly the end of the world.
The Heat, on the other hand, do have something to prove. Ever since the day James made his much derided announcement that he would bring his considerable talent to the Heat, he's known that the only way to validate himself as truly one of the greatest players in the game is to win the title that has so far eluded him in his otherwise spectacular career. Wade and Bosh don't have that much pressure on them, but they know they have to deliver on their promises, too.
Game 1 was just a primer, offering a tantalizing glimpse into what is yet to come in this playoff series.
It may not be epic, because epic is usually reserved for the finals.
But it very well could be spectacular.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org.