Heat's burn endures for Celtics

Here's my biggest takeaway from Friday's verbal sparring between Pat Riley and Danny Ainge (other than sheer astonishment that 68-year-old Riley might actually know what STFU means; until recently my 52-year-old mother thought LOL meant "lots of love" and often used it at all sorts of inappropriate times in emails):

Man, it would be a bummer if we didn't get a Celtics-Heat series this spring.

And, unfortunately, that's no slam dunk. The Celtics are trending toward the sixth or seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, which means Boston would not cross paths with top-seeded Miami until the conference finals.

Some will suggest that's actually a good thing for Boston's playoff longevity. But a Celtics team decimated by injuries and plagued by inconsistency is going to need its best basketball (and maybe a break or two along the way) to ponder a return to the conference title round.

The Celtics, of course, have far more pressing concerns at the moment, including Sunday's visit to Madison Square Garden to play the soon-to-be Atlantic Division champion Knicks. This entire weekend probably should be about the Boston-New York rivalry (the Yankees and Red Sox clash Opening Day, Monday in the Bronx), and yet Celtics-Knicks just isn't quite as zazzy (even if the two are headed toward a potential first-round clash).

Boston undoubtedly will be seeking a bit of revenge after getting flat-out stomped when the Knicks visited TD Garden on Tuesday night. But with Kevin Garnett sidelined by left ankle inflammation, these two late-season meetings have lost much of their luster, and with Tuesday's loss, an apathetic Boston squad seemingly passed the Atlantic Division torch, content to seek revenge if the two sides do cross paths in the postseason.

Miami? That's the gift that keeps giving the whole year.

Even back in training camp, Celtics coach Doc Rivers admitted the Heat were never too far from Boston's mind, noting, "They shouldn't be. ... The best team in the NBA is Miami, so I think the East and the West, they should be on everyone's mind."

Tempers flared on the NBA's opening night in late October when Dwyane Wade decried Rajon Rondo's late-game hard foul as a "punk play." Boston's biggest win of the season came in overtime against the Heat in late January, the same day the Celtics learned Rondo would be lost for the season with a torn ACL.

Earlier this month, the Celtics were left kicking themselves after the Heat rallied from a 17-point hole to prolong their lengthy, since-snapped winning streak. After LeBron James dunked hard on old rival Jason Terry, the two bickered through the media, with the latter practically begging for a postseason encounter.

"You know at some point -- I don't want to say that it's fixed -- I think it's going to happen. We are going to see [the Heat], and it's going to be fireworks," Terry said during an appearance on Boston sports radio WEEI.

After explaining how his long-standing disdain for the Heat stemmed from the Mavs' falling to Miami in the 2006 Finals (not even exacting revenge in 2011 washed away that bitter taste), Terry added: "I'll tell you right now, I would love to see Miami in the playoffs, because the road to the championship goes through the champion. We're fired up. We love that matchup."

Just as that talk died down, Riley and Ainge took the boisterous baton and exchanged barbs Friday (Riley telling Ainge to shut the f--- up and manage his team, while Ainge playfully razzed Riley about his Armani suits and hair goop).

One final regular-season meeting looms in Miami on April 12. But these two teams simply have to meet in the postseason. They've done that in each of the past three seasons (Boston ousting the pre-LeBron Heat in five games en route to the NBA Finals in 2010, and Miami ending the Celtics' season each of the past two seasons, including a rally from a 3-2 hole last year before winning the NBA title).

Rivers, a Riley disciple, had no interest in getting involved in the smack talk between his former coach and his current co-worker, but Rivers did find it humorous and joked the two should "duke it out." Asked whether the Ainge-Riley battle could stoke this rivalry, Rivers said, "Not unless they're playing."

True, but the buzz factor is undeniable. No asterisk will be applied if these two sides don't meet in the postseason, but it simply won't feel right. All this mutual disdain has fostered an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned rivalry that needs the closure of a playoff series.

But it's a daydream for now. The Celtics have a lengthy checklist to tackle before the playoffs even arrive, including getting Garnett healthy, cleaning up a defense that has regressed in recent weeks, and figuring out how to get consistent output from key role players Jeff Green and Terry.

Boston can worry about Miami in May if that matchup materializes. And let's hope it does.