Sunday, May 16, 2010 Updated: May 17, 3:21 PM ET
Sorry Dwight, this time it's different
By Chris Forsberg ESPNBoston.com
ORLANDO, Fla. -- You can almost picture the scene: The Celtics bunkered down for film study at their practice facility, coming off an intense six-game series with the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, and watching tape of the Orlando Magic essentially waltz through the first two rounds of the 2010 NBA playoffs.
But what stands out most is how the opposition offers little in the way of resistance against Dwight Howard, allowing Orlando's uberathletic center to get to the rim uncontested and convert an array of dunks and layups.
The Celtics are half appalled, half salivating. It won't come that easy against them, they promise each other.
And for all 39 minutes he was on the court in Sunday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, absolutely nothing came easy for Howard as the Celtics took turns hacking away at him en route to a 92-88 triumph at Amway Arena.
Howard finished 3-of-10 from the field for a pedestrian 13 points and a condemning minus-9 in the plus/minus category.
But that's not the most impressive nine on the stat sheet. That would be the nine fouls the Celtics committed on Howard, whacking him four times in the first quarter alone and letting him know that he'll have to earn every point he accrues this series.
"You gotta be physical, he plays physical," said Rasheed Wallace. "That was the thing we looked at on film; over the last two series, guys just let him do whatever he wanted to do down there. We're definitely going to fight him."
The Celtics entered the series with a lengthy defensive checklist, including contesting Orlando's 3-point shooters and stopping dribble penetration by Magic point guard Jameer Nelson.
But being physical with Howard had to be at the top of that list in bold print, underlined twice, and smeared with yellow highlighter.
The statistics tell the story. During the first two rounds of the playoffs, Howard averaged 9.8 post plays per game, shot 71.1 percent on post-ups (27-of-38 overall), and generated 78 points that way.
According to the wizards at ESPN Stats & Information, Howard got the ball in the post 13 times Sunday and scored a mere nine points, while shooting just 25 percent overall.
What's more, Kendrick Perkins bullied Howard into 1-for-7 shooting when the two were paired up (Howard was 2-for-3 otherwise). Howard did not register a single dunk, an astounding fact when you consider that 25 percent of his total field goals have come on dunks in the postseason.
The Celtics' Rajon Rondo steals the ball from Dwight Howard during Sunday's Game 1 against Orlando.
It simply won't come that easy against Boston.
"We made it tough on him," said Perkins. "It's going to be a physical series. We are going to play physical and we know how he is a physical guy, but we just tried to play him and make it tough on him."
The strategy worked for at least one game. Howard looked dapper when he arrived at the podium for his postgame Q-and-A with the media, but he spoke in somewhat hushed tones that don't befit his typical boisterous self, a player who holds a pregame dance party on the hardwood and soars around the court befitting his Superman nickname.
"[I can't] get in a wrestling match with those guys," Howard said. "I think that's playing to their advantage, trying to wrestle with them and fight for position. Then they play better defense that way.
"They played great defense tonight, they made it tough for me to score. I'm not happy with the way things happened tonight. Now I have to go back, regroup, and look at film to really focus on better ways to get position and score."
He's not going to like what he sees. Five different players fouled him Sunday night, including three apiece for Wallace and Perkins. The Celtics acknowledge there's no such thing as rollover fouls, so why not use 'em while they got 'em?
"We have a lot of fouls," said Wallace. "I have my six. [Glen Davis], [Kendrick Perkins], Shelden [WIlliams], and Kevin [Garnett have six, too]."
This simply keeps with tradition. Boston fouled Howard 32 times during four regular-season meetings and they're already exceeding that average in Game 1.
"I think what they're going to try to do is try to frustrate me and get into my head and play their game," said Howard. "So I just have to do my best to stay focused and not get frustrated."
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That didn't happen Sunday. Just 26 seconds after Wallace replaced Perkins in the third quarter, he and Howard got tagged with double technicals for a dust-up under the Orlando basket.
Howard got called for a three-second violation soon after and traveled on Orlando's next possession, then threw the ball away from the official in disgust, earning another team technical for delay of game.
Clearly, Boston succeeded in getting under his skin.
But that shouldn't come as a surprise. Boston loves the bully role, especially when it's accompanied by a sort of brash confidence that further rubs an opponent the wrong way.
These are the Celtics that showed up for one game this year and found boxing gloves hanging from their locker stalls signed by Manny Pacquiao, the WBO welterweight champion they befriended during their first title run in 2008.
This is a team where Paul Pierce routinely makes extended boxing analogies, while Davis and Perkins engage in a shadowboxing routine before the opening tip of each game.
Boston loves to mix it up. Perkins boasts five stitches in his upper lip that say as much -- the result of catching an elbow from Shaquille O'Neal during a foul that Perkins committed in the last round.
Perkins enters this series battling sore knees and lingering tendinitis from the grind of going 12 rounds for much of the past 6½ months. But he's happy to throw some more haymakers with Howard.
Maybe it's time for Wallace to bust out the wrestling-style championship belts he used to carry into the arena. It doesn't even matter that those titles still belong to Orlando, the reigning champs of the Eastern Conference. If the Celtics continue to play as physical as they did against Howard in Game 1, they'll be the rightful owners of those belts before long.
But regardless of the final outcome, the Celtics are adamant that Howard will not score easy buckets.
"Other guys, he might intimidate them or whatever," said Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. "But with our bigs, they don't really care."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.