BOSTON -- OK, it's bad form to rip the referees. But all Doc Rivers wants to know is this: Can he get through one game of the NBA Finals without one of his key players getting into early foul trouble? Is that too much to ask?
In the hugely pivotal Game 3 on Tuesday night, which the Lakers won 91-84, the Celtics once again found themselves playing with only two of their Big Three. (Actually, only one, seeing as how Ray Allen went from Tucson in July to Vladivostok in December.) The final statistics will show that Paul Pierce had 15 points, three of them in the final minute. He picked up two quick fouls and was out of sorts for most of the night, battling Ron Artest and the officials. He had as many fouls (five) as field goals, and for the second straight game was pretty much a nonfactor.
Pierce simply played poorly in Game 2. He had no chance in Game 3, according to his coach.
"Paul never got into a rhythm," Rivers said. "Every time he came on the floor, another whistle blows and he had to sit down. He was completely taken out of the game by the foul calls. I'll give Artest credit when he deserves it, but this was more that Paul Pierce had to sit on the bench. He'd play five minutes, have to go back down, four minutes, have to sit.
"I mean, he wasn't allowed to play. They didn't allow him to play."
Who knows whether those words will cost Rivers some of his next paycheck, but he has now seen three straight games where one of his stars has gotten into quick and irreversible foul trouble. On the other side, he heard Phil Jackson, the Lakers coach, moan about the officiating in Game 2 and then see a 27-20 disparity in fouls in Game 3.
"Every game so far, we've had one of our top players in foul trouble," Rivers said. "Maybe I should start complaining about fouls [like Jackson did]. Maybe I can get a turnaround like it was turned around [in Game 3]. That was amazing."
It was Ray Allen who never got going in Game 1, picking up two quick fouls and playing a playoff-low 27 minutes. It was Kevin Garnett in Game 2. The Big Ticket was limited to 24 minutes because of foul trouble, picking up two early fouls, duplicating Allen.
In Game 3, it was Pierce. He had two fouls in the first eight minutes and had to sit. He picked up his third in the second quarter. The fourth came off the ball with 3:20 gone in the third, which led to another trip to the bench. The fifth, also off the ball, came 39 seconds into the final period.
Pierce ended up playing 34 minutes, including the final 8:15 with the five fouls. He had averaged 43 minutes in the first two games of the series and never played fewer than 35 minutes against the Magic in the conference finals.
Pierce took the high road afterward, saying he had good looks while he was out there and simply couldn't convert. "I'll take those looks all night long," he said.
Overall, the officiating has been a subject of postgame discussion (and consternation to a certain extent) in all three games. The Lakers have been called for nine fewer fouls over the three games and have attempted 10 more free throws.
The Celtics did have an advantage late in the game when the officiating crew had to resort to replay on three occasions in the final 89 seconds. The first call went against the Celtics -- a biggie since they trailed 84-80 with 1:29 to play and originally had been given the ball. The other two reviewed plays went Boston's way, both involving Rajon Rondo and Lamar Odom. All three original calls were reversed.
Of the first critical review, Rivers said, "I thought that was a tough overrule because I watched it five times and I wasn't sure. And I thought that if it was inconclusive, that you couldn't overturn it. But clearly I was wrong.
"Going by the percentages of the replays," Rivers continued, "we should replay a lot of them because every one of them turned the other way. Maybe we need to use the replay more in a lot of our calls."
But even with replay, the Celtics need their Big Three to not only be able to play, but be able to play like, well, the Big Three. Garnett finally joined the NBA Finals in Game 3 (25 points, 6 rebounds) after two essentially MIA games in Los Angeles. (We can't use the words he did to describe his play in the two games at the Staples Center.)
Pierce has now had two straight underwhelming games; he is shooting 13-of-36 from the field. And the estimable Allen somehow came off his 32-point scorcher in Game 2, with an NBA Finals-record eight 3-pointers, to deliver an unthinkable 0-of-13 from the field. Had he boinged one more, he'd have tied a Finals record for most misses without a basket.
So it's not all the fouls. The Celtics' rebounding woes resurfaced in Game 3 and Boston missed eight of 24 free throws. There also were two huge offensive fouls -- all right, back to them again -- in the fourth period, one on Ray Allen and the other on Garnett. Both were whistled by Laker-friendly zebra Bill Kennedy (L.A. is 4-0 in the playoffs with Kennedy on the floor).
The Lakers have had their own officiating beefs. Artest had two quickies in Game 3 and Derek Fisher had two quickies in Game 2. Lamar Odom had three in a short span in Game 2 and never recovered. Kobe Bryant battled foul trouble in Game 2 (he got five and should have gotten six) then vowed that wouldn't happen again. He was right. He picked up two in 44 minutes in Game 3.
With the Celtics down 2-1, no one needs to tell Rivers that his team needs more than just favorable whistles to make this a series again. All he wants is for his starters to stay on the floor. But as he has seen so far, and finally vocalized after Game 3, he frustratingly has no say whatsoever in that matter. We'll see if his latest words resonate for Game 4.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.