Celtics have bigger problems than just Pierce's early Game 1 ejection
MIAMI -- The facts of postseason life were turned inside-out by the Heat here Sunday. One team lacked cohesion and trust, and it wasn't Miami. One second unit played as if it's still learning how to blend in, and it wasn't Miami's. One contender acted like it had never been here before, and it wasn't Miami.
Was it arrogance or uncertainty that undid the Celtics throughout their 99-90 Game 1 loss? All they knew was that Paul Pierce (19 points and four turnovers) had himself thrown out after being outsmarted by Dwyane Wade with seven minutes remaining in the game. This as Wade overcame four horrible regular-season showings with 38 points (14-of-21), five assists, two blocks and but two turnovers in 37 terrific minutes.
Pierce made two mistakes uncharacteristic of a future Hall-of-Famer who should know better. Just 59 seconds before his ejection, he was clobbered around the shoulders by James Jones, who had been upfaked and wanted to prevent him from releasing the jump-shot for a three-point play. Pierce responded by nuzzling his nose into Jones' cheek, which was a more aggressive move than it sounds here. Jones responded as if Pierce was trying to spread some kind of horrible contagion, which was not only a bright move, but also possibly the first nose-to-cheek flop in league history. Each was assessed a technical foul.
"I thought it was a flagrant foul,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers in his team's locker room after the game. "He came down like bam and chopped [Pierce] on the neck.''
Pierce left without speaking with reporters, and Rivers was unwilling to absolve him. "Now you still walk away,'' said Rivers. "Because it's like we told them before the game, all they were talking about was being physical. So you knew what they were going to do. That's not physical. They were going to be chippy. Because they're not physical. If you know that, then you've got to walk away from it, you've just got to take it. And we didn't do a good job of taking it.''
Wade and Jones (25 efficient points) had dumped the Celtics in a deep 87-74 hole at the time of Pierce's ensuing run-in with Wade, which makes Pierce's ejection less the cause and more a symptom of Boston's opening-game downfall. Wade was running the baseline defensively when he bore through a Pierce screen. Referee Ed Malloy instantly called double technicals on both stars, and then pointed Pierce to the locker room.
"I was trying to get through a screen,'' said Wade. "I ran through it. He (Pierce) followed me. Paul had some words for me and the referee thought it was a little too much.''
What did Pierce say?
"It was a bunch of jibberish,'' said Wade without a smile.
"I don't think he said anything that was at the referee or was even focused on Dwyane Wade,'' said Ray Allen, whose 25 points (9-of-13) made him the only Celtic to excel. "It was Paul just [acting] 'I'm tough, I'm tough' and that's not going to faze me. So anything to tick a referee off -- that's why we say, you have to make sure you're being smart out there.
"I don't think he did anything over the top. But it's us learning how to get out of those situations, back away from him. That was his second tech. You have to talk about the first one now, because if he never got that one, he'd never be in that predicament.''
Officiating crew chief Danny Crawford said Wade earned his technical by walking toward Pierce after the contact -- a brilliant move by Wade to bait him. "He directed profanity toward Wade,'' said Crawford of Pierce's reaction. "In the rule book, that is a verbal taunt, and it just so happened to be Pierce's second technical foul.''
"Him and Wade, they both were talking,'' said Rivers. "But now, listen, the guy got one tech. You got to know. Come on.''
In other words, how could Pierce have made such a youthful mistake? The Celtics find themselves the road underdog against a hungry favorite that is younger and more athletic and has a bench that has been together longer than Boston's.
The Celtics need to make everything go their way, but the mistakes of this game echo the frustrations of their 10-11 stumble over the concluding seven weeks that downgraded a potential No. 1 seeding to No. 3. Point guard Rajon Rondo, who has been under pressure to pull together the numerous loose ends created by a flurry of February moves and the absence of Shaquille O'Neal, earned three early fouls, played eight first-half minutes and was unable to respond to the first halves of Wade (23 points and three assists in 18 minutes) and Jones (4-of-5 from three-point range in the second quarter).
There were a few minutes in the second quarter when the ball moved without Rondo, and a few minutes more in the third when he was able to push the tempo to his liking and steer Boston within 60-53. But that was that: The Heat ground out a 16-6 run that exposed Boston's tensions after Jermaine O'Neal committed a regrettable flagrant foul against Jones. Rondo responded by yelling at O'Neal and then staring him down, forcing Pierce to call an impromptu team huddle on the court. Pierce was reaching out to touch each of his angry teammates as O'Neal yelled back at Rondo.
But then Pierce's common sense vanished, and with it went a major advantage. For Miami has now beaten Boston twice within the month by a combined 32 points. Wade, who had played horribly (12.8 points, 28.1 percent shooting and 5.3 turnovers) while enabling Boston to win three of their four regular-season meetings, has earned newfound confidence against the Celtics. LeBron James (22 points, five assists, two blocked shots) looked most comfortable in his playmaking role, while Chris Bosh (seven points, 12 rebounds) realized he doesn't need to approach perfection in order to contribute to a win against this team.
Do the Celtics have them right where they want them? Will we look back on this opening game as a setup that led to a surprising Boston rebellion? The Celtics will believe they can respond in Game 2 on Tuesday. But they need to worry that Miami, sensing weakness, might be inspired to build to a higher level too.