- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
- 0 Shares
It qualified as an instant rivalry the moment LeBron James took his talents (and his futility baggage) to South Beach.
Before that, the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics experienced only a smattering of entertaining moments. There was the 2010 second-round playoff series when Kevin Garnett drew a suspension for elbowing Quentin Richardson, as well a few of his garden variety "let me stare you down, I'm a bad [expletive]" exchanges with Dwyane Wade.
It was an interesting sidelight that Heat president (and sometimes coach) Pat Riley loathed the leprechaun and the parquet and all the Celtics mystique that accompanied it, but it wasn't until James migrated south with Chris Bosh in tow and declared his new union the Big Three that things got really interesting.
The notion that LeBron simply could not win "the big one" emanated from his inability to spur his Cleveland Cavaliers team past the Celtics. His lowest moments were at the hands of Boston; epic playoff duels (with some mano a mano subplots against Paul Pierce) left him empty-handed and open to an avalanche of criticism in 2008 and 2010.
The Celtics became his personal hurdle, his own measuring stick.
He found redemption in the second round of the 2011 playoffs. The tension in an already hotly contested series was ratcheted up in Game 3 when Wade and Rajon Rondo became entangled going after a loose ball. Rondo dislocated his left elbow, effectively ending Boston's chances of delivering an upset and assigning Wade villainous status among irate Celtics fans.
Miami eliminated Boston in five games, leaving a misty-eyed LeBron kneeling in relief. The Celtics demon had been officially exorcised. "This was the team I needed to get over the hump against," he admitted.
The Heat celebrated as though they had won the championship (they would not do so that June). It was, James said, a moment he will always cherish.
"Crazy," Wade says now, chuckling at the memory. "That win was so emotional, and it took so much out of us, and all it did was get us out of the second round. But [the Celtics] should look at that as a sign of respect.
"We go into the season every year saying Boston is the team to beat. We don't go in saying, 'Look out for OKC or the Lakers.' Boston is the team to beat for us."
Of course you recall the last time these teams shared the court. The Heat were the heavily favored team laden with New Age stars, and the Celtics, who were without Jeff Green (heart surgery), Avery Bradley (double shoulder surgery) and Chris Wilcox (heart surgery), were the plucky, proud, aging warriors who limped into the Eastern Conference finals with Pierce laboring with a bad knee and Ray Allen gimpy from bone spurs in his ankles.
Boston seized a 3-2 series lead. All the Celtics had to do was go back to the friendly confines of the Garden to polish off their "overrated" opponent and they would advance to the Finals.
It didn't happen. LeBron submitted the seminal performance of his career, torching Boston for 45 points (on 19-of-26 shooting) and 15 boards, annihilating any momentum the Celtics might have enjoyed. Rondo's triple-double was offset by his seven turnovers. Pierce missed 14 of his 18 shots. As a team, the Celtics shot 1-of-9 from the 3-point line.
The green team recovered to take an 11-point lead in Miami in Game 7, with Allen pouring in 12 heroic first-half points. But LeBron (he logged all 48 minutes), Wade and Bosh took over in the final minutes to earn a ticket to play Oklahoma City, a team they steamrolled en route to the King's first title.
Think Boston has forgotten any of that? The Celtics know they blew their opportunity to extend LeBron's angst, and believe that, with a full, healthy complement in 2012-13, they match up as well as anyone against the Heat.
"We had two chances to advance to the NBA Finals," Pierce noted. "That's still in the back of our minds."
The defection of Allen, who grew disenchanted with his role in Boston, has added a gnarly undercurrent to an already testy rivalry. Animosity regarding his departure bubbled to the surface as this game drew closer.
"I think Ray knows what to expect now," said James, who knows a thing or two about the hostile backlash from a former team. "We'll be there with him. He's not going into that environment by himself."
"The guys have been great," Allen said. "They've accepted me and welcomed me. But I still sense that some of the [Heat] people on the periphery, they're not there yet.
"I see them glaring at me and I say, 'Hey, buddy, I'm here now. I know you used to hate me before, but I'm part of this now.'"
There is a measure of anticipation regarding the reception Allen will receive from his former "brothers." Ray said he intends to embrace each of them before the game. He might have to go to the Celtics locker room to locate Rondo, who suggested he might retreat there during the Heat's ring ceremony.
It used to be the Lakers who raised the ire of the Celtics in this manner, but with only two games a season and a few years removed from a chance to square off with L.A. in the Finals, the Heat have become Boston's latest incarnation of Public Enemy No. 1.
There's KG versus LeBron, who openly mocked Boston's emotional big man in last season's playoffs when Garnett attempted one of his stare-downs; there's LeBron versus Pierce, which has deep roots and plenty of history; Rondo versus Wade, Wade versus KG, and Ray versus everyone.
Newcomer Jason Terry has already indicated he wants a piece of this rivalry, along with Jeff Green.
"Doc Rivers said it," Wade pointed out. "He said, 'I want my team to hate the Heat.'"
Does a rivalry truly exist if one team always triumphs when it matters most? Since LeBron's arrival, Miami has consistently enjoyed the upper hand when it comes to the postseason (think Red Sox-Yankees before the Idiots finally obliterated New York's domination with that improbable playoff comeback in 2004).
But that doesn't mean Miami will ever make the mistake of taking Boston lightly.
"They're just good," Wade shrugged. "They're good, and they talk. They have that aura about them. That's what they're supposed to have. That team right there, they built something, and because of that, you want to beat them."
The Celtics feel the same way about Miami. The way Boston's season ended gnawed at the players all summer. Tuesday night's season opener in Miami could be a step toward healing the wounds.
"It's one game," Rivers said. "I mean, you want to win, and playing the best team in the NBA, it would be a nice team to win against. That's the team we have to catch.
"But if you win, that's nice because you're 1-0, but you don't get a trophy. That's for sure. You don't get their trophy."
"It's not Game 7 anymore," Rondo said. "It's one game."
Sure. We'll go with that. But we all know better, especially now that Allen has changed allegiances.
There are precious few must-see games on the regular-season NBA docket.
Tuesday's Celtics-Heat game is definitely one of them.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com