Celtics lost Game 1 by losing composure
MIAMI -- After James Jones knocked down his fifth 3-pointer of the night, Jermaine O'Neal had seen enough. Someone had to knock down Jones.
O'Neal would later admit he picked a poor way to respond, leveling the hot-shooting Jones with a right elbow as he sprinted through the paint late in the third quarter. It resulted in an ill-timed flagrant foul that stemmed the Boston Celtics' momentum as they tried to rally from their largest deficit of the night, one of numerous mental miscues Boston committed throughout a 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series at American Airlines Arena.
The Celtics were staring at a 19-point deficit early in the third quarter due in large part to Jones' 3-point barrage, but had whittled that down to eight before Jones came off another screen and buried his fifth trey in six tries.
O'Neal answered with a putback at the other end of the floor, then really answered with the elbow as Jones started to make his move with Kevin Garnett chasing. Jones made both freebies off the flagrant foul, then Mike Bibby drilled a 3-pointer of his own for a five-point possession that pushed Miami's lead back to 14. Less than two minutes after the flagrant, the lead had ballooned to 18 and Boston never got closer than seven.
"It's a part of the game, it's the playoffs," O'Neal said. "It's about doing what you need to do to win the game. [Did the flagrant] help the team? No. Should I keep my composure? Yes. There's ways that you can respond when things are done.
"I think this game was all about -- they played very well, definitely don't want to take anything away from them -- but we had a lot of unforced turnovers to start the game, almost to the point where we looked like a team that hasn't played in a week. They were the team that played with more force and the playoffs is about responding to the chess game. What's the next move? Who's going to make the next move? Who's going to be better at the next move?
"Do we feel like we can play better? A lot better? Absolutely. We feel like we didn't play at the level we're supposed to play at. Some of it's the way they played, and a lot of it's the way we played."
Boston shot itself in the foot all game. While the Heat struggled to make jumpers out the gate, the Celtics couldn't capitalize. Rajon Rondo found himself in early foul trouble and Paul Pierce labored through a dreadful first half plagued by the one thing Boston absolutely couldn't survive -- turnovers.
It all added up to a 15-point halftime deficit, and no matter how hard they tried to rally, Boston couldn't get out of its own way.
"I just think when we did make our run, we dug a hole for ourselves," Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo said. "We got flagrant fouls, we didn't stop their 3-point shooters. We kind of beat ourselves in this situation. We were making runs, it's just we weren't making the right plays or it was a turnover. It's simple stuff."
Rondo pinned much of the blame on his own play. He found himself in avoidable foul trouble that contributed to him playing a mere 8:23 in the first half, generating two points and no assists before intermission. Then in the fourth quarter he got a case of the fumbles, turning the ball over five times.
But it was the foul trouble that made Rondo a nonfactor. He got tagged with a loose-ball foul while chasing his own miss about four minutes into the game, and, after a Pierce turnover, was forced to foul LeBron James on the break to prevent an easy layup.
The Celtics rolled the dice, putting Rondo back on the floor at the start of the second quarter, and a mere 43 seconds in, he got tangled with Jones chasing a rebound and was whistled for his third foul, sending him back to the pine.
"The third foul, I thought I [had] inside position on the guy," Rondo said with a shrug. "He flopped and got the call."
Whether the call was just doesn't matter. The Celtics repeatedly put themselves in tough spots like that and prevented themselves from making a sustained run.
Tempers boiled over in the fourth quarter, culminating with Pierce's ejection after a pair of double technicals. But the Celtics came unraveled much earlier, and coach Doc Rivers was disappointed in his team's lack of composure, particularly having been in numerous intense games before in the Big Three era.
"It's tough," Rivers admitted. "It's so easy for me, suit and tie. I do remember when I played, I kind of lost my cool a couple of times. I was in these things as well, maybe once. But you knew it was coming.
"All [Miami] did was talk about being physical. To me that's not physical, by the way, that's chippy. That isn't physical. But we didn't handle it very well, and that's what was disappointing to me."
The Celtics are typically instigators, not retaliators. They got a taste of what it's like to play themselves Sunday and they didn't like the texture. Boston has to put all that in the past quickly or face its first 2-0 deficit of the Big Three era.
"Now it's about winning one," O'Neal said. "We're going to take it one game at a time. Nobody said it's going to be easy."
But the Celtics themselves made it this hard.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.