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Boston's defense sets tone in opener

5/17/2010


ORLANDO, Fla. -- Technically, it was just a foul. And since we're talking about Rasheed Wallace, we should be quick to note it was not a technical foul.

Instead, the foul in question was akin to something straight out of a martial arts movie, a haymaker of a hack across the arms of Dwight Howard on Orlando's first possession of the fourth quarter.

No matter that Howard subsequently went to the line and made both shots. The foul was one of several strong messages sent Orlando's way on an afternoon when the main message -- that defense is going to be the most important component of this series -- was delivered again and again and again.

This opponent isn't just going to give its fouls or use its fouls. The Boston Celtics are going to give those fouls with zest, with gusto.

And if the Orlando Magic can't take it, well, the Boston Celtics will take that.

"You've got to be physical. He plays physical," Wallace said after the Celtics defeated the Orlando Magic 92-88 Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. "That's the one thing we looked at and seen over the last few series. Guys just let him do whatever he wanted to do. We're definitely going to fight him, we have a lot of fouls. I have my six, so do Baby [Glen Davis], Perk [Kendrick Perkins], Shelden [Williams], Kevin [Garnett]."

But the Celtics didn't merely play a dirty brand of defense. They stayed home on Orlando's shooters and defended the 3-point line so well, the Magic went 0-for-9 in the first half. They were active with their hands, poking balls away, getting their mitts on loose balls, stepping into passing lanes and coming up with eight steals.

Through three quarters, as Boston was building a 20-point lead, the Magic were making less than 38 percent of their shots. Yes, they recovered and made a late run at the end as the Celtics went more than five minutes without scoring a single point, but it was a quintessential case of having too little, too late.

"It was a defensive game, and we like those. That was fine with us," said Boston coach Doc Rivers, whose team clearly benefited from going up against an opponent that hadn't played a game in a week and hadn't played a tough team in more than a month.

And these Celtics were tough, frustrating Howard not only with their fouls, but also with their ability to push him away from the basket and take him away from his low-post comfort zone.

Kendrick Perkins was able to do it a year ago when the Celtics (without Kevin Garnett) took the Magic to seven games, and Wallace had done it in the past, when Orlando could never get past the Detroit Pistons back when Wallace was one of their defensive anchors.

"They're going to try to frustrate me and get into my head and play head games, and I have to do my best to maintain my focus," said Howard, whose 13 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks were discounted by his seven turnovers. "I got into a little wresting match with all their guys, and that's to their advantage. That takes me off my game."

There was no singular offensive star for the Celtics, who got 25 points from Ray Allen, 22 from Pierce (but only two in the fourth quarter) and 13 from Wallace. Kevin Garnett and Rashard Lewis basically played to a draw, Jameer Nelson had 20 points to Rajon Rondo's eight but lost the assists battle 8-2, and the bench contributions were basically a wash.

Where the difference came in this game was in which team took the fight to the other from the get-go, and the Celtics were that feistier team.

"That's who we are, we're a defensive team. We can get up on their shooters and not let them open their 3-point game," Pierce said.

Still, Rivers told the team at halftime that the Magic had attempted seven 3-pointers in the second quarter after taking only two in the first 12 minutes. And he warned them that eventually those 3s were going to start dropping unless Boston continued to defend at the arc.

And indeed, Orlando did hit five 3s in the second half while pulling as close as two (with 8.4 seconds left), but Allen iced the game by making a pair from the line with 6.1 seconds remaining.

With Boston coming off the emotional high of their victory over Cleveland after muddling through the final two-thirds of the season, Rivers had some explaining to do afterward.

How, for instance, could a team that had looked so lethargic so often turn things around so dramatically in the past couple of weeks?

"We're old, so I think a lot of our guys in the regular season when they were out with injuries, it's tough to work on defense when you don't practice, or you only have eight guys for practice," Rivers said. "But everyone is healthy, everyone's listening, and everyone's buying into our defensive schemes."

Those schemes limited the Magic to just 14 points in the first quarter and 18 in the second. The Magic then allowed a 20-3 run midway through the third quarter as the Celtics went up 65-45, with Howard and Wallace getting double technical fouls toward the end of the run for getting a little too personal as they untangled their locked arms.

"That was a wake-up call we really needed, in my opinion," said Carter, who was Orlando's most aggressive player, attacking the paint and trying to create offense. "They're relentless, they're aggressive, they do a great job of contesting, especially in the paint, and it took us a while to figure it out, but when we did we played a lot better."

Wallace told Rivers back in the preseason that he'd end up being judged on his body of work in the playoffs, not the regular season.

So far, so good.