The phrase “Fugazi” – Mafia slang for “fake tough guy” per the movie Donnie Brasco – should be a familiar one to long-term Nets fans. Following a game 2 Nets demolition of the Manhattan Knicks during the 2004 NBA Playoffs, then-Knick Tim Thomas, injured by a hard foul from Nets center Jason Collins, referred to Collins’ teammate Kenyon Martin – long considered the heart, soul and tenacious grit of the back-to-back finals team – as a “Fugazi.” Martin, ever the diplomat, said he would welcome being locked in a room with Thomas to see who would emerge in one piece. That surprisingly did very little to quiet the heat between the Nets and Knicks.
What I’ve always found preposterous about Thomas’ words was the fact that Martin’s tough guy act helped his team win, and only went on to emblemize in that playoff series how much more battle-tested and prepared the Nets were than the Knicks –- a team that had taken a punch and essentially refused to fight back. If Jason Kidd hadn’t suffered a debilitating knee injury in the second round of that postseason, the Nets and their “Fugazi” spirit probably would have made a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. There was nothing "fake" about Martin and those Nets.
Of course the reason why I’m fixated on “Fugazi” today is based on last night’s Brooklyn Nets victory in Boston over the Celtics. The Celtics, who are only a few months removed from taking the Miami Heat to a competitive fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, put on a clinic in “Fugazi” last night. I don’t know what exactly happened to that group of hardened competitors from the past five years (actually, I have a great idea what happened. It’s called “Father Time”), but the Celtics no longer resemble that team, and watching them parade around last night like a bunch of crybabies made me more sad than angry. There’s nothing more pathetic than seeing a “Fugazi” who doesn’t know he’s a fraud.
During the post-game show on YES last night, Nets play-by-play man Ian Eagle – hardly one to unabashedly “homer” for the Nets over the years –- made a very matter-of-fact statement about the play that sparked a moderately-sized brawl between the two teams, leading to the ejections/technical fouls to Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett. Eagle talked about how the Celtics had taken relative glee in the Nets buffoonery over the past few seasons, often humiliating the team on both ends of the floor and “bullying” them into submission. KG was especially egregious. During the infamous Yi Jianlian years in New Jersey, Garnett would spend sequences getting physical with Yi for the hell of it. The Celtics would be up 20+ points, and KG would throw Yi to the ground trying to grab an offensive rebound -- not because the game was in balance, but because he could. And the Nets did little, if anything, to fight back.
What happened last night to spark the brawl is a classic case of a schoolyard bully getting punched in the nose by the nerd he had been picking on every day for years. With the Nets up 16, Humphries fouled Garnett hard, though despite some protestation from Boston Coach Doc Rivers after the fact, it was hardly a dirty foul. Rivers lamented that KG “could get hurt” since he was falling backwards on the play, in which I could point to every hard foul committed by Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rondo on the likes of Yi, Devin Harris and Brook Lopez the past five seasons. Boston fans had been telling me for years that it’s part of the game. Well, alright then.
And still that wasn’t even remotely the worst part of the sequence. Rondo – a notorious hothead whose egomania may be directly responsible for a class act like Ray Allen to spur the Celtics in favor of the Heat this past summer -– decided that he would escalate the situation by grabbing Humphries and throwing a series of pushes and haymakers. Hump defended himself, and earned two technicals and a rejection regardless. Garnett worked a cheap shot in on Wallace, who dived into the group to try and break things up. The Celtics looked like the confused, cornered old dogs that they are.
But that’s not what makes them “Fugazi’s.” The Celtics initiated a melee to send a message, and despite the Nets losing two of their starters to ejections compared to just Rondo on Boston’s side, the home team never cut the Nets’ lead to less than 9 for the remaining half of basketball. Despite another a poor shooting performance from Deron Williams and foul trouble for Lopez that limited him to 17 minutes, the Celtics were thoroughly dominated by the likes of Jerry Stackhouse, Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans. To further punctuate the whipping, iso-Joe Johnson took a play out of the Globetrotters playbook, using a playground-style crossover dribble to bring a comedically lunging Paul Pierce – a notorious trash talker on isolation plays – to the floor.
The Celtics tried to use their old playbook from better season’s past to intimidate the Nets, and took a beating. After the game, Rivers condemned his team as being “soft” and still, Celtics SG Jason Terry – who might want to focus on the consistency of his jump shot rather than his silly “jet” celebrations on the court – continued talking trash, saying that if Rivers said the team was soft, then Humphries should be on their team. Hump’s response was merely this humorous tweet.
Putting all “it’s only November” disclaimers aside, the Celtics were exposed last night. Simply put, after picking a fight with the Nets, the Celtics were locked in a room with them for another 24 minutes and it was Brooklyn that came out intact, essentially unblemished. Rondo will likely be suspended, and KG will likely continue with his demonstrative little act, though I wish Roger Murtagh would sit down with him and tell him how he’s getting “told old for this s---.” Though I’m sure he’s still smarting from 2004, I would wager even Tim Thomas knows who the “Fugazi's” were last night.