Until yesterday, the Boston Celtics were the Miami Heat’s Mr. Sandman. Allow me to explain.
As I wrote this post, the Mike Tyson’s Punch Out theme song plays on repeat in my head. You see, dreams of Little Mac winning a heavyweight title dominated my childhood (that, and trying to beat my cousin Mike in the 100M dash in “Gold Medal Challenge”; unfortunately, that never happened—Mike was like the Usain Bolt of Nintendo games). For those of you who don’t know what Mike Tyson’s Punch Out is, two things:
1) Shame on you.
And 2) It’s a classic Nintendo boxing game in which you, controlling the character “Little Mac,” attempted to beat a number of boxers for the chance at a title shot against Mike Tyson.
I became obsessed. I kept running dossiers on how to knock out Glass Joe, Don Flamenco, King Hippo, Piston Honda and all the other characters. I’ll give you one example of my scouting reports, just so you know the extent of my Thibodeau-like preparation: To dominate King Hippo, you needed to hit him in the head first, at which time his hands would fly to protect his face and his stomach would be open for the kill. You could then hit him eight times (no more, no less) in his fat stomach; after the eighth body blow (his shorts would fall down after each one), he’d finally protect his stomach. Which only meant you had to hit him in his head one more time, then start the cycle all over again. Before long, you would knock his fat ass out, the “K.O.” speech bubble would come out of Mario’s mouth, and Little Mac would start pumping both his fists in celebration. I’m telling you, I had Mike Tyson’s Punch Out down to a science. I was clinical in the destruction of my foes.
Except for Mr. Sandman. Or, as I preferred to call him back then, “Mr. Fucking Sandman, That Asshole Who I Can’t Beat No Matter What Strategy I Try.” For every ten times I hit Mr. Sandman, he would hit me (err, Little Mac, who I was controlling) once. But Little Mac hitting Mr. Sandman was like Earl Boykins hitting Shaq, so my ten punches affected him less than his one punch hurt me.
And then, my least favorite aspect of Mike Tyson’s Punchout would occur—Mr. Sandman would hit me, and my entire body would go purple, and I would become stunned, meaning I couldn’t punch him back, meaning I could only try to dodge his punches. Inevitably, I would dodge two or three punches successfully before Mr. Sandman finally hit me once (once was all it took), and I’d go falling down to the ground like Derrick Fisher trying to take a charge (except, unlike Fisher, I had actually gotten hit). Why I went purple even though Mr. Sandman never did, I’ll never understand. Once, my ten-year old self even sent a letter to the game’s creators. It read, in its entirety, “Why do I get stunned and go purple, but fucking Sandman never does? This game sucks.” Sadly, I never heard a response.
By now, you should understand what I mean when I say the Celtics had been Miami’s Mr. Sandman. Boston was the one hurdle the Heat couldn’t clear, and that hurdle was always going to be standing there before the finish line. The Heat could use Lebron James and Dwyane Wade to physically overwhelm most opponents, but they could not overcome Boston’s rugged veteranism (Note: I’m almost positive I just made up that word). Pure talent could beat many teams, but it could not beat an equally talented team that was rigid in its synergistic ways. The Celtics only beat Miami three straight times, but the way they did it was enough to assume the Heat had no chance—not this year, at least. If the Celtics executed at a playoff level, Miami executed at the level of five seventh-graders playing a game of “21″ at the park. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the difference between the two teams was stark, and Miami started to have its doubts. Dwyane Wade made the comparison that the Celtics were like the Heat’s older brothers, and admitted there was a hump they had not yet figured out how to get over.
But that was then, this is now. If Boston’s advantage was always mental, it’s decidedly smaller now. When the Kendrick Perkins trade was made—whether it was a fair reaction or not—the Celtics lost whatever aura of invincibility they once had. With Perkins and their original starting five, the Celtics had never lost a playoff series. Without him, they’ve never even played one. People can and still will debate the merits of that trade, but what can’t be debated is the reaction of Boston’s competition. Unanimously, they felt the trade hurt Boston.
The Chicago Bulls, according to Brian Scalabrine, celebrated the trade. They believed, for the first time, the Eastern Conference was up for grabs. Pau Gasol said he was curious about why the Celtics made the trade. Stan Van Gundy was surprised by the deal, adding that Perkins was a big part of Boston’s identity, of their toughness. And the Heat? They went from feeling like Boston’s little brothers to thinking they had a real opportunity.
Speaking of the difference in the Celts since their big trade, Chris Bosh said things were essentially the same in what they try to do. Then he added, “It’s just a difference in players. Kendrick (Perkins) brought a certain element to that team, and it’s not there anymore.”
You can dismiss the effect of the Perkins trade all you want. You can say the way his absence coincides with Boston’s tailspin is only coincidental. After all, he only played in 12 games for Boston this season. The C’s were 33-10 without him. It’s been their offense, not their defense, which has struggled the most since Perkins left town. Rajon Rondo hasn’t been himself, Ray Allen has disappeared, and those two players’ slides should not have anything to do with Kendrick Perkins. Those are all valid points.
But there’s another element, a more human, intangible element to all this. Before the Perkins trade, and I believe this firmly, the Bulls and Heat (if not the Lakers) wanted no part of Boston. They feared Boston. They looked at Boston as an obstacle that could not be climbed, like Mr. Sandman, an indestructible foe that had never been beaten in a playoff series when healthy. The Heat would take one punch from Boston, then turn purple and just wait for the Celtics to knock them out. The other teams weren’t going to just hand Boston the Eastern Conference trophy, but the Celtics possessed a level of intimidation that helped set them apart.
Do they still have that? Not now, at least. Not in the regular season, getting smacked around by teams against whom they used to hold an edge. Maybe that edge, that intimidation factor, will come back in the playoffs, when the Celtics win a road game in Miami and the Heat start thinking, “Damn. After all that, they’re still the Celtics.” On the other hand, maybe that edge is gone forever.
“They had beaten us three times, this was our first time together that we’ve beat them,” Dwyane Wade said yesterday. “It was getting over that hump; you need to see you can perform and play well and beat them. We had our chances in the other games, we weren’t the team that they were. Today we proved we’re a much better team than we were in the previous three.”
Either that, or the Celtics are much worse. These teams aren’t going to give the Celtics anything, not anymore, not with the Celtics feeling so vulnerable. If the Celtics want their edge back, they’re going to have to earn it with playoff wins. They’re going to have to earn it by showing teams their swagger remains, even after Perkins left town. Because right now, Mr. Sandman never seemed so beatable.