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On Basketball

Time to call on experience, guile

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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CLEVELAND — The Celtics committed three fouls in the first 2 minutes 21 seconds of the third quarter and 3:46 later, Rajon Rondo committed the fourth foul to put Cleveland in the bonus for the rest of the period. It was road officiating. The Celtics spent most of the game looking for calls that never happened and arguing calls that did, and it spoiled a sparkling three-quarter effort in the 101-93 Game 1 loss last night.

The Celtics were a victim of their own aggression, especially Glen Davis, whose impact was greatly limited by four first-half fouls — three in a span of 2:39 in the first quarter. While Cleveland big men Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson (one foul between them) were allowed to carry out the customary playoff pushing and shoving with no penalty, the Celtics picked up fouls faster than a David Ortiz at-bat.

The quartet of Paul Pierce, Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace, and Davis collected 12 first-half fouls. The Cavaliers had eight. But as frustrated as they were, the Celtics shouldn’t be surprised. This is why underdogs generally don’t win this far into the postseason. The Celtics’ first playoff series opener on the road in six years was a sobering experience.

Wallace finished with more fouls (three) than field goals (one) and attempted to sneak out of the Celtics’ locker room without comment. When approached, he smartly declined to address the game, “Nah man, I’m not trying to get fined.’’

The Celtics didn’t lose last night because of the officiating, but the whistles turned them into a timid team in the second half. And the numbers show that the Cavaliers were more aggressive but they didn’t fear sending the Celtics to the foul line on every possession.

Of the 17 Cleveland fouls, nine were on Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison, meaning the other eight players amassed a total of eight fouls in 183:17 of action. That allowed for more aggression, more ability to use hands and arms when chasing rebounds or contesting shots.

The Cavaliers didn’t win because of the officiating; they won because they were allowed to be the more physical team in the second half. And the Celtics, who spent too much of the regular season barking at officials, were at it again, but with good reason this time.

“You are on the road man, you are on the road,’’ forward Kevin Garnett said. “I have never been in the series where you have been on the road and the refs have given the road team anything. You gotta play through it. It’s not the time to be [expletive] and complaining to the refs. If they are going to let you play, you gotta play. You say your two cents and your peace and you gotta keep it moving.’’

So the first major lesson of the series was learned. The Celtics have to play smartly aggressive. This is not the Miami Heat. The Cavaliers are a physical team that gets away with overaggression at times because they are the top seed. Fouls that Varejao got away with Davis didn’t. Anthony Parker managed nearly 26 minutes of basketball with no fouls.

Questionable officiating usually isn’t the central reason for a team losing, and that was true last night. But by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, and LeBron James was darting into the paint and O’Neal was completing up-and-under moves, the Celtics were consumed with having to be perfect defensively and realizing that slaps to the arms and shoulders were going to be ignored if they powered to the basket.

Speaking with an ugly cut that required five stitches in his upper lip, Perkins was a victim of an O’Neal elbow that did draw a foul call — on Perkins. Did a shot to the chops from the biggest man in basketball affect Perkins’s mind-set in the paint? Of course, but the Celtics have to spend the next 36 hours understanding that they have to counter the Cavaliers’ physicality with controlled physicality of their own.

Cheap fouls that Davis, Wallace, and Pierce got away with during the regular season are unacceptable now. The Celtics have to be more disciplined defensively and they have to increase their toughness in the paint and finish those layups.

“We didn’t take their punches very well and we gave in just a little bit,’’ Perkins said. “We have to keep attacking them. I thought we got away from that in the second half.’’

Playoff life is a dog when you’re not the favorite. The Celtics got the message from a raucous crowd of 20,562 that they are indeed the underdog. So they have to react accordingly. They have to understand that perhaps not even the confines of TD Garden will generate more calls or free throws. And they have to accept that.

This series is going to challenge the Celtics’ toughness because Cleveland is more physical and skilled than two years ago, when they lost in seven games to the Celtics. The Celtics aren’t as skilled as two years ago but they are savvier, and they have to use that guile to their advantage with intelligent aggression.

“Maybe mentally, guys were worried about fouls,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I told them at halftime, I don’t care if everybody fouls out in the third quarter. We were winning because we were attacking. They won the game because they attacked in the second half.’’

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