By A.Sherrod Blakely
BOSTON The last time Boston played New York, Celtics coach Doc Rivers found himself uttering the seemingly unspeakable to his team at the half.
"I haven't used the word 'soft' in, maybe four years, but at halftime, that word came out a lot," Rivers said that night.
The Celtics rallied in the second half for a win, but the C's haven't totally freed themselves of such criticism.
Boston has shown the ability to lock into opponents and be the physical, grind-it-out kind of team we've seen make deep playoff runs an annual tradition.
Far too many times lately, though, that team is nowhere to be found when its presence is desperately needed.
That has to change if the Celtics are to have any shot at bringing home Banner 18.
But first things first.
They must deal with a red-hot New York Knicks team in the first round of the playoffs, which will begin at the TD Garden this weekend.
New York presents tremendous challenge to any team's defense.
Amar'e Stoudemire averages 25.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and spent a good chunk of the season being talked about as an MVP candidate. Carmelo Anthony is essentially a younger, bigger and stronger version of Paul Pierce.
And don't forget point guard Chauncey Billups, a five-time All-Star who was NBA Finals MVP in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons.
Beyond those three, the Knicks have little firepower.
And we're not even going to talk about the Knicks and defense because, well, the Knicks don't really play defense.
That's why it's vital the Celtics counter New York's explosive trio of scorers with a physical brand of basketball.
It will have to be a team thing, obviously.
But it starts with the Big Four and Glen Davis, the only players on the roster who truly understand what it's like to go deep into the playoffs with the Green team.
"We have a core group of guys who have been there, who won it," Davis said. "At the end of the day, Doc's going to shorten the rotation. The guys out there are guys that got the grit, the guys who are going to grind and make it happen."
One of the more physical plays made by the Celtics recently was a flagrant foul by Jermaine O'Neal against Miami's LeBron James on Sunday.
The play led to the usual theatrical stare-downs between players from both teams, with the end result being a handful of technical fouls being handed out.
"Sometimes you have to have hard fouls, you have to have hard plays," O'Neal said. "Here's the issue. If you don't commit them, somebody is going to commit them to you. Sometimes the first team that hits first, is the team left standing."
O'Neal recalled the many battles he had with the Detroit Pistons when he was a member of the Indiana Pacers.
"It was like fisticuffs every game," O'Neal said. "That's just how it is."
And that's how it has to be if the Celtics are to finish the season off achieving the only goal they set for themselves this season -- bringing home Banner 18.
"It's no ill will to intentionally cripple somebody," O'Neal said. "But you have to make sure, they don't need to be coming into that lane on every possession. That's what it is. We have guys who have grit. Everybody is built differently. But we have a handful of guys who can bring some force and bring some toughness to that lane."
But the issue remains, can they do it with any kind of consistency?
If they plan to be the last team standing, they have no choice.
"We understand exactly what we need to do and where we need to go if we want to be champions," O'Neal said. "That's what it really boils down to."