The 2012 NBA Playoffs begin tonight for the Boston Celtics.
Yes, I'm aware that two series are already in the books, and Monday night was the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals, a game that had Miami trying to deliver a first round knockout. The Heat punched the Celtics in the mouth, and then literally laughed in the face of their battered opponent.
The only thing the Celtics can do is counter punch.
In years past, the question of whether the Celtics would come out swinging after a loss like that wouldn't be necessary. In both 2009 and 2010 the only way you could beat the Celtics was going the distance. Even with KG injured, the Celtics beat the upstart Bulls in Game 7, and just missed a trip to the ECF by falling to the Orlando Magic in Game 7. The question wasn't would the Celtics counter punch, it was would the other team still be standing. In 2011, however, that wasn't the case. After losing Game 1 against the Heat in the second round last year, the Celtics responded by losing again in Miami. They fought back and won in Game 3, but couldn't close out Game 4, eventually losing the series in five. Tired legs and an injured Rajon Rondo (he didn't play in Game 5) were easy excuses, but the Celtics' inablilty to come back in Game 2 and keep it a close series is what did them in.
The one notable difference in the first two series versus last year, is the absence of Kendrick Perkins. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think Kendrick Perkins would swing this series, by any means. God love him, but Perk is as slow a professional athlete as I remember. He has cement feet and granite hands. I could run a 5K in the time it takes him to collect an offensive rebound, come down, and lay it back in and the motion of his jumpshot mirrors that of a medievil catapult. What Perkins can do, and did for the Celtics when he was here, is change the way superstars Lebron James and Dwyane Wade approach taking to the ball to the hoop. On many occasions it was Perk they were looking up at when James and Wade "hit the deck," to borrow a phrase from Rajon Rondo. So minus Perk, who on the Celtics can set the tone Rondo is looking for? Who can levy the counter punch?
The obvious choice would be Kevin Garnett? Afterall, he is the second dirtiest player in the league. Even with that moniquer, KG isn't that kind of dirty. He may talk a ton of trash, give a little extra shove or elbow after the whistle, he once even went where no man should ever go, but Garnett is not really the type to give hard fouls. KG will play good, hard defense until the whistle, but he is so rarely beaten bad enough that he needs to give the hard, statement foul. Usually he is in range to make a block or a deflection, so that his defense is pretty straight up. Perkins' defense was based on the team concept, positioning, and rotation. If he was ever out on an island with a faster player he would be blown by and had no problem knocking the guy to the ground. So who else is going to do the dirty work? Pierce is probably the toughest guy on the team, but it is toughness born of taking beatings, not handing them out. Brandon Bass and Ray Allen are constantly locked in a "nice guy" competition, (Ray's technical aside), and Rajon Rondo may not be big enough to take out anyone other than Erik Spoelstra.
My suggestion? Mickael Pietrus. Air France has made little impact in the playoffs so far and has an opportunity to make his presence felt by flooring James or Wade early in Game 2. I agree with Rondo. A good, hard, playoff foul may be what it takes to wake up the Celtics, and get Miami out of their comfort zone. Pietrus has never been afraid to give the hard foul, and he has the low key demeanor to keep his head when the other team overreacts. Also, if the referees get a little trigger happy and bounce him from the game, the Celtics don't lose a ton.
The Celtics will need more than a few Heat players hitting the deck to win Game 2. They will need to move the ball on offense, knock down the open shots and easy baskets that they had plenty of in Game 1, and turn up the intensity on defense. They'll have to get the loose balls that the Heat consistently beat them to on Monday. Finally, they'll have to have a big night, a podium game, from one of their four stars. The Celtics are in for a fight in Game 2. They'll either deliver a counter punch, or suffer a TKO.
A reader (@RicFlair33) contacted me on Twitter and suggested Ryan Hollins be the one to give the hard foul. Great suggestion, and one I probably should have thought of. I'll blame the ommission on my constant fight to avoid thinking about the fact that Ryan Hollins plays meaningful minutes in the playoffs for the Celtics. Hollins certainly has the reputation. He was voted the 11th dirtiest player, and he barely plays!!! That would mean that his dirt-to-minutes-played ratio must be off the charts.