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Friday, January 28, 2011
Physically fit?

By Greg Payne

Comcast SportsNet ScreenshotBoston's Rajon Rondo needed a minute after a hard foul by Portland's Nicolas Batum.
The Celtics were expecting things to get physical against the Portland Trailblazers Thursday night, and sure enough, by the end of the first half, four of the club's five starters had already picked themselves up off the floor after absorbing hard hits from the opposition.

Three minutes in, while fighting for a rebound, Paul Pierce took a shot to the mouth from Nicolas Batum that left him counting his teeth. Two minutes later, Kevin Garnett hit the deck after being planted by an illegal screen set by Joel Przybilla, who stood over and stared down at Garnett the way a boxer might. Thirty seconds later, Rajon Rondo endured a hard foul by Batum and hit the hardwood, laying somewhat motionless on his stomach for a few moments.

The Celtics, however, were not impressed by Portland's tough-guy act, nor were they fazed by it. Pierce took his shot to the jaw and remained in the game, burying a step-back jumper two minutes later. Garnett got back on his feet after Przybilla knocked him down, shot the Portland center an almost amused glance, and proceeded to bank in a jump shot from the left wing. Rondo, meanwhile, picked himself up after Batum's hit, and, on the next play, slashed inside and converted a scoop shot in the paint.

The Blazers kept the hard hits coming for the remainder of the game, and the Celtics continued to respond, eventually winning 88-78. Doc Rivers told reporters afterwards that the Celtics were prepared for such a performance from the Blazers after some suggestive comments surfaced on Wednesday.

Before Thursday's game, Blazers guard Wesley Matthews told The Oregonian: "We have to throw the first punch."

Added Batum: "They're going to hit hard and try to hit first, and I don't think the referees are going to make a call for us. So we have to be smart... we have to play tougher than them."

Little did the Blazers know they were playing right into the Celtics' hands. Boston, a no-nonsense, no-excuses team, employs a certain physicality of its own, and is happy to go toe-to-toe (or blow-for-blow) with any club that feels like bumping and jawing.

"[The Blazers] played extremely hard tonight and you knew they would, reading the papers about how physical they were going to be with us and all that stuff," said Rivers. "When we read that, we actually like it. That means it's going to be played our way, so we're good with that."

Blazers forward Dante Cunningham was perhaps the most frequent distributor of the hard hits. Cunningham made his fouls count last night, beginning with an aggressive body shot on Allen a minute into the second frame that left Allen on his backside. Allen glared back up at the Portland reserve, wearing a face that said quite clearly: "Really, Cunningham? Really?" He, like his teammates before him, got back on his feet and answered back by burying both free throws.

Towards the end of the quarter, Cunningham struck again, this time with the aid of Matthews, as the pair assaulted Glen Davis on a transition layup attempt, sending the Celtics' forward crashing into the first row of photographers along the baseline. Davis would go on to make one of two free throw attempts.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Cunningham and Allen got tangled up yet again, this time in transition on an Allen dunk attempt. Cunningham knocked the ball away and, again, sent Allen to the floor. The play was ruled a clean block, but replays clearly showed that Cunningham smacked Allen hard in the face.

Despite the Celtics' ability to cope with Portland's aggressive frame of mind, they probably could have used a more comfortable and appreciably less physical game to begin their most grueling road test of the season, especially with the second half of a back-to-back looming Friday against Steve Nash and the always fast-paced Phoenix Suns.

In addition to having to play a difficult back-to-back, the Celtics' body clocks might be thrown off by the quick change in time zones. Boston had to travel southeast to Phoenix from Portland, entering the mountain standard time zone from the pacific standard time zone, and technically lost an hour of time to rest and recuperate -- a slight annoyance Rivers alluded to in his postgame press conference following the Celtics' home victory against the Cavaliers on Tuesday. Regardless, Rivers shrugged off the idea that the trip might have gotten too physical too quick for his team.

"We are who we are," Rivers said. "That's how we play. We [aren't] going to change now. We've done it for four years, so, that's who we are."

Rondo, meanwhile, suggested the game really wasn't all that physical in a postgame interview on ComcastSports Net. Instead, Boston's point guard claimed a few of Portland's players made some "dirty plays", but beyond that, "it was simple basketball." Allen might disagree with Rondo's assessment that the game wasn't very physical, along with Pierce, who exited the game with roughly two minutes still to play with what was the team deemed a bruised right thigh. He's listed as questionable for tonight's tilt in Phoenix.

The Celtics can only hope that fatigue and full-body soreness don't serve as detrimental factors in Phoenix. Rivers admitted after Thursday's game that he isn't expecting things to be very easy for the Celtics in the desert.

"[The Suns are] still trying to get up and down the floor, and playing them back-to-back after this game won't be very easy for us," he said. "But, it's a road trip."

Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com