John Tomase

Celtics should be ready for Heat to play dirty; that's what Pat Riley teams do

Miami's only hope in this series is to muck the game up.

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Pat Riley doesn't cut the same swaggering figure that marked his Showtime Lakers heyday, not at 79, and not with his trademark slicked-back hair now whiter than an aging Michael Corleone's. But his presence still signals a warning for the top-seeded Celtics:

Watch your back.

Miami cannot match Boston's talent. That would be the case with a healthy Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier in the lineup, and it was readily apparent during a Game 1 beatdown without them. The Celtics scored the game's first 14 points and found themselves up 30 without even playing particularly well.

Their 114-94 victory might already have been forgotten, in fact, except for a play that recalled the second, cruder phase of Riley's coaching career.

When Caleb Martin hydroplaned into an unsuspecting Jayson Tatum with a minute left, knocking the All-Star onto his back with a sickening thud, it suggested a blueprint for how the desperate Heat might approach the rest of the series, and it ain't pretty.

If you can't beat 'em, beat 'em up.

It wouldn't be the first time. Riley made a similar calculation when he realized his 1990s Knicks couldn't hang with Michael Jordan's Bulls. The overseer of L.A.'s high-octane offense turned Madison Square Garden into an octagon. Forget about Magic Johnson dazzling in the open floor while entertaining the glitterati. Winning now came down to how many acts of misdemeanor assault Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and Co. could commit without leaving the arena in handcuffs.

The Knicks never managed to solve their Jordan problem, but they came close, and they nearly broke the NBA in the process before the game finally opened up again in the early 2000s.

The Heat aren't built to drop the gloves like those rugged Knicks, but that doesn't mean they can't play some dangerous basketball over the next week and a half. It may be their only recourse, because they're outclassed and desperate.

Consider Martin's cross body block the first salvo. We can debate whether the play was straight dirty or just recklessly hard-nosed – colleague Brian Scalabrine didn't like the suspicious timeout that preceded it – but if the Heat were trying to send the Celtics a message, Boston would be wise to listen.

We've already seen what impact injuries can have on a Heat series. In Game 7 of last year's conference finals, Tatum rolled his ankle on a sprawled Gabe Vincent, effectively ending the Celtics' season. Did Vincent leave his foot where Tatum could land on it? It certainly worked out in Miami's favor.

Rewind a little further, to the 2011 conference semifinals, when Miami's Dwyane Wade tackled Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo after having his pocket picked. It wasn't even remotely a basketball play. Rondo ended up dislocating his left elbow and effectively played the rest of the series one-handed.

Riley represents the through-line. He has built the Heat into the league's scrappiest team, an assemblage of undrafted free agents, castoffs, and a legitimate All-Star or two. They consistently play beyond the sum of their parts, which is a credit to head coach Erik Spoelstra, who's good at imposing Miami's pace on opponents.

That's a near impossibility with their current injuries, though. Butler should miss multiple weeks with a sprained right MCL, and Rozier is week to week with a neck injury. Add the offseason losses of gunner Max Strus and the pesky Vincent, and Miami is trying to win with All-Star Bam Adebayo, the struggling Tyler Herro, and game but inexperienced youngsters like Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Nikola Jovic.

They're simply no match for Jaylen Brown, Tatum, Kristaps Porzingis, and the rest of Boston's formidable core.

But what they can do is hit the Celtics every time they attack the basket. They can swarm in the backcourt when they press, and if someone gets knocked down, so be it. They can continue setting bone-crunching screens such as the Adebayo one that dropped Derrick White like an Acme anvil.

They can ditch the precision weaponry for messy hand-to-hand combat. Adebayo basically hinted at as much before the series.

"It's gonna be a dogfight," he told reporters. "It usually is when you face that team. It's not going to be pretty basketball."

The Celtics don't play pretty basketball? The Celtics, who just operated the most efficient offense in NBA history? The Celtics, who can beat you with Tatum and Brown at the rim, Porzingis, White, and Jrue Holliday in the lane, and everyone from 3? Those Celtics don't play pretty basketball?

If these games turn ugly, the Heat will be the reason. Pat Riley has mucked up the game before, and his team won't hesitate to do so again. With injuries slowing virtually every other contender in the East, the Celtics' path to the Finals will never be smoother.

They just need to stay healthy, so here's some advice if they open another big lead in Game 2:

Head on a swivel.

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