MIAMI -- Ray Allen approached the Celtics bench and reached out to touch a cold shoulder, Kevin Garnett never even bothering to acknowledge a former teammate turned traitor.
Boy, it’s gonna be a great year.
When the curtain opened on the NBA season Tuesday night, it had the same effect of duct tape being ripped off a hairy arm. There was agony and anger, pain and puffy chests and the suspicious scent of June intensity somehow finding its way to October. The defending champion Heat and the proud Celtics do not much like each other, not that it’s a bad thing.
“They want to beat us,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “and we want to beat them.”
Rivers meant beat, as in defeat. But if NBA rules allowed it, the Celtics and Heat would also beat each other, like to a pulp. For example, after being lassoed around the neck by Rajon Rondo in the final seconds on Tuesday, it took every ounce of strength by Dwyane Wade to keep from beaning Rondo with the ball.
The NBA is a better, more interesting league when rivalries aren’t faked, when the intensity is real and the passion reaches a fever pitch. Especially in the East, where there’s gap between the Heat and whoever’s breathing their exhaust. That’s the way basketball was in the 1980s, when Red Auerbach turned on the heat in the visitor’s locker room in June, and when the ever-reserved Julius Erving, of all people, grabbed Larry Bird by the throat.
Nobody’s promoting violence, far from it. But hurt feelings and extra motivation are nice alternatives. The more the better, actually. Both were evident soon after the Heat received their rings from forgetful commissioner David Stern, who confused Hurricane Sandy with Katrina in his opening remarks. The Celtics stayed in their locker room, then emerged blowing steam, with Jason Terry egging on the American Airlines Arena crowd by waving his hands during warmups.
The Celtics ruled the East not long ago, winning a championship in 2008 before returning to the Finals two years later, where they took the Lakers to a seventh game. Then LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined forces with Wade in Miami and there was only enough room in the East for one Big Three. And last summer, Allen bolted Boston and joined the Heat, which to the Celtics was Allen essentially saying their time was up.
There was more to it than that; Allen received a bit more money and the promise of open shots and increased minutes. But suddenly, Garnett said he “lost” Allen’s cell number over the summer and Rondo, no fan of Allen anyway, referred to his former teammate as “No. 20” in interviews, never calling him by name.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” Allen said. “Regardless of how they feel, I have nothing but great sentiment for them. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Well, that was Allen rising above the muck, taking the high road. He’s always been a true pro. When he checked into the game in the first quarter, he made a point of walking over to the Celtics bench to give “a peace offering.” He found Rivers and gave him a hug. Then he grabbed a few assistant coaches before making his way down the bench, where Garnett sat. Allen gave Garnett a “wassup” tap on the shoulder. Garnett barely bothered to look up. He treated Allen’s gesture like dandruff and brushed it off.
“How did you expect him to react?” asked Allen. “That’s KG. Kevin is an intense competitor on the bench. He’s in a different zone.”
It wasn’t just Garnett. When the game was over and Allen’s 19 points helped produce a 129-107 Miami win, he searched for Paul Pierce and Rondo, but they walked quickly to the locker room. Any fuzzy moments between Allen and the three players who helped win the 2008 title will probably have to wait until the 25th reunion. Maybe KG won’t swing a cane in his direction.
For now, the Celtics are perhaps the most qualified team in the East to keep the Heat from collecting a string of conference championships. That’s another reason for the strained relations. The Celtics are on the clock. Garnett is clearly on the downswing, but has retained a young man’s passion. Pierce remains a 20-point scorer in his twilight. Terry was signed to replace Allen’s points and he carries a distaste for the Heat after running into Wade and James in the Bahamas weeks after Terry and the Mavericks beat Miami in the Finals two years ago, and Terry said they refused to acknowledge his presence.
“We don’t like them,” said Terry.
It’s hard to imagine Miami getting a challenge from anyone else in the East. The Pacers don’t have a single star, let alone three to match Miami’s. The Bulls need a completely healthy Derrick Rose to stir anyone’s imaginations, and even Rose at MVP-level wasn’t enough to carry Chicago over Miami two years ago. Who else? The Knicks, with a gimpy Amar’e Stoudemire, who might miss two months with a bum knee? The Nets? Should we even look any further?
Assuming good health for LeBron and Wade, there’s no other team on Miami’s level in the East, the Celtics included. It will take everything the Celtics have, with an extra dose of hostility, to create even the chance of a surprise. Not that they won’t try when these teams meet the rest of the season.
“The tension’s going to be thick at times,” predicted Bosh. “Nobody wants to lose.”
You know who really won’t lose? Us. If the Celtics and Heat amp up the intensity, and the Lakers and Thunder and Spurs do their part in the West, this will be a season to remember. High intensity leads to high drama, and in an 82-game schedule, the league can use all the passion it can get to remain relevant in December and January, as it fights for respect and buzz against football.
The two most decorated teams in the East set the tone right from the start, and it makes you wonder what’s in store at the finish.