The first salvo of the Celtics' best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series against Atlanta was officially fired with 3:08 remaining in the third quarter of Boston's 110-101 victory last night. Kevin McHale was the unwilling recipient of a painful face rake by muscular Kevin Willis.
"I don't mind hard fouls," said McHale, who outscored his counterpart, 25-13, despite early foul trouble. "When we try to foul someone, we try to grab their arms. We don't have that throw-them-to-the-floor mentality."
Apparently, Willis attempted to swab the parquet with McHale's face when he was caught off guard by a baseline drive and was forced to resort to a last-gasp grasp.
"He beat me to the hole, and I saw that he wasn't all the way there," Willis said. "So I just fouled him enough so he wouldn't get his shot off.
"McHale's a great low-post player, so I just tried to get him off the block as much as I can," he added. "I didn't want him to get his shot off. It wasn't intentional. I didn't try to hurt him or anything, I just didn't want him to get his shot off."
Evidently, McHale thought "enough" was way too much, charging Willis in retaliation before he was restrained by several teammates and official Dick Bavetta.
"He stopped me," McHale said. "But what I didn't like was that he grabbed my face and pulled me down. He's out there trying to fight for position, and I don't mind that. But after you shoot the ball . . . the face grab, the pull-back and the eye gouge, that's uncalled for."
Said Willis in self-defense, "It happens in the heat of a game. In a game like this between two teams that are rivals, tempers do flare. But it's nothing personal, I think. It just happens."
Celtics coach K.C. Jones took exception to the foul and tried to prevent other occurrences, vehemently arguing the call with Bavetta during a timeout.
"I didn't like what Willis did to Kevin," Jones said. "I had a disagreement with the official. He thought it was a hard foul, but I thought it was flagrant. If this is going to be allowed to go on, it will happen throughout the series and there are going to be some fights."
Was McHale's confrontation with Willis a harbinger of malevolence in Game 2?
"It's a good matchup any time we play against one another," said Willis. "He's a strong player, but I like the physical aspect of the game. As far as the banging down low, that's my type of game and I prepare my body for that because I'm a big guy. And when you're 7 foot, you have to be an aggressive, strong player. You can't be walking around down there because you can get hurt."
Though the skirmish seemed to end in a stalemate, with McHale gaining a pair of free throws as his retribution, the matchup to watch obviously will be the one between the dueling Kevins -- McHale in the white trunks and Willis in the red.
"He doesn't appear to be a virile, strong-type player because of the frame of his body," said Willis, sizing up McHale. "He has some strength, so you have to give him respect for that, but hey, he's a tough player and I can't take anything away from him."
Except maybe a few fingernails full of his flesh.