Size Does Matter

February 6, 1999

Size matters.

So does experience. So does a sense of purpose. The Celtics found that out in many painful and unpleasant ways last night in their season opener. They got bludgeoned on the boards in their 103-92 loss to the Raptors at the FleetCenter, a defeat that was as humiliating as it was surprising. It drove home the unnecessary point that exhibition games mean nothing and highlighted again the Celtics' soft underbelly, which promises to be a season-long concern. Geez, is it time for Andrew DeClercq to renegotiate? He couldn't go last night because of back spasms and he was missed. Newcomers Tony Battie and Eric Riley were manhandled inside by the two old paints on the Raptors, Kevin Willis and Charles Oakley. It was downright dominating.

"I just think they physically beat the hell out of us," said a disappointed Rick Pitino. "I tried to tell them that they were going to see a different Oakley and a different Willis, that they would play a lot differently and that they were going to be very physical." The message might have had trouble connecting, for Willis and Oakley did what all veterans do when the Celtics and Raptors met twice in the exhibition season: They took both games off. Oakley played 46 minutes in the two games, both easy Boston wins. He went 38 last night. Willis played 54 minutes in the two games. He went 40 last night. More to the point was the rebounding assault. Toronto had a 54-40 advantage, with Willis (16) and Oakley (9) leading the way.

The Raptors had 22 offensive rebounds and a 22-9 edge in second-chance points. They held the Celtics to 92 points and 43 percent shooting; in the two exhibitions, Boston shot 47 percent and averaged 113 points. No one should have to make the case that the regular season is vastly different, but the Celtics appeared to think they would be seeing the same soft, turnover-prone, poor-shooting Raptors they saw when the games didn't count. "I think Rick tried to tell his guys that, but he couldn't sell it enough," said Toronto coach Butch Carter. "Oakley and Willis are veterans. And it was time to play." Added Willis, "It's possible they took us lightly. We lost to them twice. But we can't think like that. It's a new day, a new time." The Celtics' inside game is, to be charitable, a work in progress. Generally, when you have three centers or four, that really means you don't have one, which is the case here. Boston was further handicapped when the always hyper DeClercq, whom Carter cited for his aggressive play in the exhibition games, couldn't go.

Popeye Jones, supposed to be an inside presence, is still hobbled by a thigh bruise and didn't play, either. That left it up to Battie, Riley, and, for a two-foul, one-minute stretch, Dwayne Schintzius. Riley did manage to collect 11 rebounds, but he was no match for Willis, who added 28 points. Battie played only 19 minutes and fouled out. But the centers weren't the only ones who discovered that things were different inside. So, too, did captain Antoine Walker, who started out as if he were going to set a house scoring record. He had 11 in the first quarter and 17 at halftime. He finished with 21 points and took just five shots in the second half as he frequently got swallowed up inside. "He got off to a quick start, making those easy buggers," Oakley said. "Then we decided to make him start working for everything." Added Kenny Anderson, "Willis and Oakley really turned it up a notch. It was a physical game. They wore us down." Simply, the Raptors were the team that came to work last night, which is hard to accept when the other team is coached by Pitino. Toronto had a 52-34 advantage in points in the paint, yet another indictment of the Celtics' interior defense.

Pitino talked afterward about how his team is having trouble with man-to-man defense in practice and can't work on the press because he doesn't have enough healthy bodies. "We found we're not physical in our man-to-man defense," he said. Now it's an open secret. The Celtics will pay for their timidity immediately. Pitino called a practice for this morning, a rarity on a game day. Cleveland, which visits tonight, is coming off a similar drilling at the hands of the Hawks. The good news is that there's no time to dwell on the shortcomings. The bad news is that there is little time to fix them.

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