NEW YORK -- By now, everyone knows how the Boston Celtics are going to win games.
It's a word that is tossed around the Celtics' locker room as often as "Gatorade" or "towel." Paul Pierce talks about it. So does Ray Allen. If you listen to Kevin Garnett enough, you might come away with the feeling that he is thinking about changing his nickname from the Big Ticket to the Big Sacrifice. Sitting in the corner of the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, Garnett could barely get past a couple of sentences without coming back to the word.
"We have guys willing to sacrifice," Garnett said. "We have guys who have lost recently and have come into a new situation revived. We don't take the small things for granted. We're three guys trying to be an example for the whole franchise. When you do that, good things happen."
So we know how they are going to win.
Just to play devil's advocate, here is how they are going to lose.
Beat 'em up on the boards
The Knicks were effective at bullying Boston in their 94-87 victory here Monday. I'm not talking about the skirmish that broke out after Jamal Crawford knocked Allen to the floor or the wild swing Tony Allen took at Nate Robinson when the two got tangled up in the second half. I'm referring to the way Eddy Curry, David Lee, Zach Randolph and Quentin Richardson physically dominated their positions as New York racked up a 53-41 edge on the glass.
To be fair, Boston was without centers Kendrick Perkins and Scot Pollard, leaving Garnett and 6-foot-8 Leon Powe to man the middle. But Perkins' physical play often gets him in foul trouble, and Pollard averaged 4.5 minutes a game last season with Cleveland. So whether he likes it or not (and team sources say it is not his first choice), Garnett likely will have to log significant minutes at center this season.
"They might be better off bringing Perkins off the bench," an Eastern Conference executive said. "Try to keep him out of foul trouble early."
Get to the bench
Clearly, the second unit is Boston's biggest weakness, particularly at the point-guard position. On Monday, starter Rajon Rondo exited the game in the first quarter with the game tied; when he returned in the middle of the second quarter, the Celtics were down 11. Eddie House was completely ineffective and rookie Gabe Pruitt didn't see any action until the game's final minute. Coach Doc Rivers admitted afterward that he is probably going to ride Rondo 36-38 minutes a game this season. That's a large burden for a 21-year-old second-year player, but a necessary one until someone emerges as a capable backup.
"We didn't handle [backing up Rondo] it well today, clearly," Rivers said. "I thought we kind of left Eddie out to dry a lot tonight against Nate Robinson, so I don't put [the poor performance] on Eddie."
Still, while Rivers says he is "happy with my guys," Boston may have to look outside the organization for help. One league executive believes free agent Earl Boykins would be a good fit in Boston, though the Celtics have shown no inkling that they are interested in the 5-5 scoring guard. Another possibility is a potential trade with the Grizzlies (run by former Celtics general manager Chris Wallace), who are stocked at the position with Damon Stoudamire, Kyle Lowry and rookie Mike Conley, as well as Spanish combo guard Juan Carlos Navarro.
Hope for a rift
While there is complete harmony in the Celtics' locker room today, it's not a stretch to speculate that problems could arise over the course of an 82-game season. If they do, team and league sources believe they will probably start with Pierce. Ray Allen hasn't always been considered the focal point of his team; in Milwaukee, he shared the spotlight with Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, and in Seattle, he played alongside Rashard Lewis. Garnett has always been The Man, but the Big Sacrifice has gone out of his way to defer to Pierce, showering the captain with praise and insisting that Pierce be the final player announced during pregame introductions.
Pierce, however, is in a unique situation. He has been a star since his first game with the Celtics in 1999, aided in part by Antoine Walker's willingness to cede the spotlight. But the Boston fan base will embrace Garnett in the same way it has embraced David Ortiz and Tom Brady. Garnett's trademark intensity will draw fans to him and, consequently, away from Pierce. I'm not saying Pierce won't handle it gracefully. It's just that no one is dead certain that he will.