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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
East Side: Rivalries are all around

By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives, called West Side/East Side. Today's edition examines the state of NBA rivalries.


You know what confirmed that NBA rivalries are alive and well?

That cold shoulder Kevin Garnett gave Ray Allen during the first meeting this season between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics.

To some, including my West Side colleague, Allen leaving Boston for Miami is proof that rivalries no longer exist -- that crossing enemy lines indicates free agency and friendliness have stolen everything we love from hatred-driven clashes such as Lakers-Celtics, Bulls-Pistons and Knicks-Heat.

Though it would be difficult to fathom Robert Parish donning Laker gold or Isiah Thomas sharing any sort of uniform with Michael Jordan, it doesn't mean today's game is absent of rivalries.

The rules have just changed.

If Celtics-Heat wasn't a true NBA rivalry, then Allen's move from Boston to Miami wouldn't have been viewed as such an astonishing move. It wouldn't have turned Jesus Shuttlesworth into Judas Shuttlesworth.

It wouldn't have turned his teammate of five years, Garnett, into a perfect stranger -- one who ignores Allen's greetings and erases his phone number.

Rivalries still exist in the NBA, they just don't exist by the same simple rules as they did in the 1980s and '90s.

Lakers-Celtics was a godsend of a rivalry -- one that might never be matched. Pistons-Bulls and Knicks-Heat existed in an era when physical basketball was very much allowed, adding a brutal element to already contentious basketball.

Today, that style of basketball isn't only discouraged, it's heavily punished, so it's not going to be a part of today's rivalries. But that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Today, there are plenty of matchups that create a similar level of intrigue and, yes, even fury. And player movement even drives many of these rivalries.

Celtics-Heat might've gotten even more combative now that Allen has switched uniforms. Rajon Rondo's on-court demeanor lends itself to animosity, as we've seen in the playoffs and were reminded in this season's opener when he fouled Dwyane Wade in the waning moments of that game.

And let's not forget just how entertaining those Heat-Bulls matchups have been since LeBron James transferred his talents south.

Derrick Rose attempting to lift his Bulls past the current Eastern Conference bullies could end up having a similar feel to Jordan trying to get past his tormenters, the Pistons -- only the Heat don't necessarily use elbows and body slams to push around their opponents the way Detroit did.

We tend to romanticize rivalries of the past just as we do everything that we remember fondly, but that doesn't mean every Heat-Bulls matchup of the past two seasons wasn't an intense affair -- the stuff rivalries are made of.

Heck, even Bulls-Celtics has a strong history of hostility, and will likely continue to once Rose gets back on the court.

And proximity is helping shape a new pair of rivalries in the league.

That first meeting between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks had plenty of bitterness to it on Tuesday night. Give the Nets a bit more time to develop its fan base in its borough, and toss in a playoff meeting or two, and you have a fixture of a rivalry in place.

And now that the Clippers have gone from league joke to legitimate contender, the Lakers-Clippers pairing is among the most entertaining battles in the league.

It's not what we're used to, in terms of rivalries, but it doesn't mean they aren't there.

And the individual-driven rivalry is very much alive and well -- even if most of them involve one individual, LeBron James.

LeBron versus Kevin Durant might be a battle of two adversaries that train together in the offseason, but mutual respect doesn't make the matchups any less intense.

Same with LeBron versus Carmelo Anthony. In their teams' first meeting this season, only a couple months removed from winning gold together in London, Anthony didn't hesitate to foul LeBron hard on a drive to the basket -- one of those I-have-to-adjust-my-headband-and-gather-myself type of fouls.

There's LeBron versus Kobe Bryant (if the Lakers and Heat meet in the NBA Finals, that has bitter rivalry written all over it, at least for a few years).

There's LeBron versus Cleveland.

There's plenty of healthy hatred to go around in the league, even if it isn't as perfectly defined as Lakers-Celtics was.

And even then, once Bird and Magic got to know each other on the set of that Converse commercial, it was more of a mutual respect between those two than any real loathing.

Rivalries still exist. They might just be short-lived. They might just include less physical play. They might just have interchangeable parts.

But try to tell Kevin Garnett that Celtics-Heat isn't a rivalry, and you might just get the cold shoulder as well.