MIAMI -- It started with some yapping from Delonte West that earned him a needless technical, and escalated to the point where one of the stars in this star-studded series was headed to the locker room, ejected. The bodies and expletives were flying, just as you would expect. The Celtics, winners and bullies for four years running, were not responding well to a taste of their own medicine.
This, you would not expect. Not at all.
In the aftermath of a 99-90 loss to the Heat in Game 1 of an epic Eastern Conference semifinals that will only get uglier and more personal from here, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo sat dumbfounded at their lockers. Allen, his feet soaking in an ice bucket, was engaged in a long, quiet, conversation with assistant coach Armond Hill. Rondo was squinting to see numbers on a stat sheet dangling from a nearby reporter's fingertips. Someone handed locker neighbor Glen Davis a box score, and Rondo studied it intently -- his brow furrowed, his lips pursed, no words coming out.
There was nothing to say. Rondo and the Celtics, inhabiting a losing locker room at American Airlines Arena for the second time in three weeks, were still waiting for someone in green-and-white to deliver the first blow. In a street fight -- which is what this series was always going to be, all the way back to July -- the first rule is to make sure you get the first lick in. The Celtics, the bullies, violated their own rule and got pushed around by a team that is not simply trying to take what they have, but also trying to leave them dazed and battered and dethroned in the process.
"It's the playoffs," said Dwyane Wade, who drew the second technical on Paul Pierce that got the Celtics' star unfathomably ejected with seven minutes left -- and, oh, scored 38 points while he was at it, against a team that had held him to a grand total of 51 in four regular-season meetings. "We're trying to win."
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That, and keep knocking the bully down until he won't get up anymore.
The Heat hit the Celtics with everything Sunday, hit them with Wade's ferocity and LeBron James' (mostly) selfless play-making and James Jones' 25 points off the bench -- including 5-for-7 marksmanship from 3-point range. It was those two, Wade and Jones, who were killing the Celtics in Game 1, and so it was no surprise that the Celtics targeted them with the kind of venom, precision and toughness that they otherwise left home in Boston.
First, Jermaine O'Neal flattened Jones with an upper-arm shiver that looked more like a good old-fashioned playoff greeting to me. Flagrant foul, penalty one was the ruling from the overactive imaginations of an officiating crew -- Dan Crawford, Ed Malloy, and Derrick Collins -- that had its hands full with this one. The Celtics were trying to keep Miami's lead, once 19, under double digits when Jones calmly dropped in two of his 10 free throws to make it 69-58 with 2:30 left in the third.
The Celtics were threatening again early in the fourth, threatening to wake up and take the fight to the Heat instead of just receiving all the blows. Pierce was starting to feel his rhythm, and a 3-pointer made it 82-70 with 8:29 to play.
That's when it all came crashing down on Pierce and the Celtics, who came to Miami and got sideswiped -- not by a terrible driver, but by the burden of dealing with Wade's violent assault on the rim and a suffocating Heat defense, the likes of which they'd never seen to this extent before. Knocked out of their comfort zone, shown no respect by this South Beach smoke monster that had been preparing for this moment since July, the Celtics had a choice: maintain the poise of a champion, or lose it. And Pierce lost it.
After using his pump-fake, lean-in maneuver to draw Jones into the air on the perimeter, Pierce took exception to Jones wrapping one of his spindly arms around his neck. During the stoppage in play, Pierce approached Jones and went face-to-face with the aggressor, briefly making contact as the spit and profanities flowed. The exchange was ruled a double-technical, and Pierce had only 59 seconds of court time left in this crucial playoff game on the road.
After Wade converted a three-point play, Pierce took aim at the Heat's undisputed leader and scorer at the other end -- a dirty old trick of the playoffs -- to make sure the guy hurting you feels it at the other end. As Wade raced around a screen, Pierce stood in his path and Wade tried to run right through him.
Wade wasn't backing down; not on this day. He wasn't bowing to the team that had knocked him out of the playoffs last year and delivered the same treatment twice to his superfriend, LeBron. It was humiliation that caused James to flee Cleveland and spawned a chemical reaction that was smoldering before our eyes here in the first game of a series that will be ready to blow sky high when Game 2 tips off Tuesday night.
"Every game is going to be physical," Chris Bosh said, speaking the truth in the interview room. "As the series progresses, I think it'll get more physical."
What happened in this case, as explained by crew chief Crawford in a pool interview with Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press, was a profane taunt from Pierce that earned him his second tech and the ejection with 7:00 left and the Heat leading 87-74. This was Malloy, who made the call, doing what the NBA expects its players never to do: he lost his composure, got emotional, and overreacted. No way Pierce should have been teed up there and ejected. No way he should've put himself in that situation, either.
"That was his second tech," Allen said. "And you have to talk about the first one, because if he never got that, we wouldn't have been in that predicament. ... Anything can tick a referee off. That's why we always say, 'Don't let the situation in the game or whatever may happen, don't put it in their hands. Be smart out there.'"
And Pierce wasn't. This is what happens when you're the retaliator, not the aggressor. This is what happens when the bully gets a taste of his own medicine and doesn't like it.
"The Celtics, any time you go against them -- regular season, preseason, playoffs -- it's going to be physical," James said. "Not only do they play the game, they try to make you get out of your game also. For us, we've got to continue to go out and continue to execute and give us the best possible chance to win and not worry about everything else that goes on that's not basketball."
This was James' answer to a question from me about how the Celtics' history of being the intimidator as they bounced James and Wade right out of the playoffs in the past. He looked down at me from the stage, an expression of faux confusion on his face. It was as though I were asking about something foreign to him, something that didn't happen on this Sunday afternoon on the first day of May -- which has been James' disastrous month against the Celtics.
And he was right. The bullies were wearing white Sunday, and a black hat that fit awfully well.