Posted May 16 2010 10:11PM
ORLANDO -- After spending all season annoying Celtic fans, Rasheed Wallace figured it was time to do the same to Dwight Howard.
There was the elbow jab, and then the covert arm lock, and the well-timed hip check, plus the always-irritating jersey tug. Tossed in for good measure was the old-school matador trick, where Sheed, after initially applying resistance, suddenly moved sideways and forced Howard to stumble like a sailor leaving the bar.
This was defense, the kind Howard hadn't felt in these playoffs, the kind the Celtics threw his way throughout Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Sure, the Bobcats and Hawks ran bodies at Howard, too, but difference is, Boston's bigs know what they're doing. It begins with Kendrick Perkins, who's both clumsy and clever all at once. And Big Baby Davis, who looks (and probably feels) like a Hummer. And finally, Sheed, who bumbled through his first season in Boston, who knows he'll be judged for what he does (or doesn't do) right now. When it counts.
Collectively, they dared to check Howard one-on-one and the Celtics lived to tell about it. Gone is Orlando's win streak, which had reached 14, dating back to April 4. Ditto for the Magic's clean run through the playoffs. And now, the Magic must deal with a Celtics team knowing it has the equipment to slow the game's most lethal inside player.
Howard missed 7 of 10 shots, had seven turnovers, scored 13 points, and looked helpless for the most part offensively. But it went beyond numbers. Orlando relies on Howard to dictate the flow and free up its assortment of 3-point shooters. That never materialized in Game 1, and now the Celtics are 1-up and hoping to seize total control come Tuesday night.
Perk. Big Baby. Sheed. Is this the Celtics' new Big Three?
"All of them were great," Doc Rivers said.
Let us focus a bit on Wallace, who has suddenly become a comeback story. In the span of six months. The Celtics signed him last summer, giving three years to a talented yet quick-tempered veteran, who's on the downside at that. Wallace repaid by launching ill-timed 3-point shots while largely neglecting the chores that 6-foot-11 types do, mainly rebound and provide interior defense. But what since then? Well, Wallace hit more big shots from distance than LeBron James in the final two games against the Cavaliers, getting 13 points in roughly 20 minutes each contest. And against the Magic, not only was his defense solid on Howard, but Sheed again chipped in 13 off the bench.
He was the one Celtic who got under Howard's skin like a bad tattoo, causing Howard to openly complain to the refs and giving the impression that he was becoming unhinged. Big Baby said it was Sheed's plan all along.
"With Rasheed, we want him to be the instigator, make Dwight uncomfortable, make him react," Davis said.
Howard did just that, and both drew a double technical for arm wrestling, which meant Sheed won that contest. Orlando trailed by 20 in the first half and never really recovered.
You ask him if he likes this time of year -- Sheed won a championship with the Pistons, after all -- he says, "Hell, yeah, this is what I enjoy."
And he offered a thoroughly researched and highly scientific reason for why the Magic connected on only 41 percent against the Celtics, 5-of-22 on 3-pointers.
"A lot of them jump shots, people's butts got tight," he said. "Make sure you guys print all of that."
OK. Done. Meanwhile, Perkins never got tight; he gave up his five fouls but had one fewer basket than Howard. You think the Celtics will take that any day of the week? And Big Baby provided more beef. Howard quickly realized he wasn't playing Charlotte and Atlanta anymore.
"We saw film of those games," Sheed said. "Guys let him do whatever he wanted to do. You gotta be physical because he plays physical."
So what next? Well, Howard must strike a balance between being physical and being under control. He also must make the Celtics pay for having the audacity to play him man-up. And above all, ignore Sheed.
"That's playing to their advantage, wrestling with them," Howard said. "They want me to wrestle and fight. That takes me off my game. When I'm out of rhythm, I play like a robot."
Play like a robot? Wasn't too long ago when many in Boston accused Sheed of doing just that. But that was then, when he was averaging 4.1 rebounds (less than Rajon Rondo) and shooting 28 percent on 3-pointers and essentially being a ghost in the regular season. This is now, a time for redemption of sorts, where Sheed and his partners can help force Superman to trip over his cape.
Is this finally the playoff series where Orlando discovers three bigs are greater than one? So far, the Celtics love the math.
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