Posted Sep 14 2010 9:18AM
The stretch of Florida's Turnpike between Miami and Orlando is famous for toll booths, orange groves, a handful of unfortunate possums who weren't quick enough and now, for scorched earth.
That's from the piping rivalry being ratcheted up between the great basketball teams residing in the state.
All the necessary ingredients are there to make for a spicy stew: Territorial and professional pride, championship aspirations, hard feelings, angry words, ego and intense competition. In other words, just what the NBA needs -- a taste of drama with a strong kick to it.
When the summer began, the Magic were sitting pretty as the team most likely to overtake the Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy -- until the Heat went and combined three All-Stars. That move only made Magic general manager Otis Smith mock LeBron James for taking an easier road to a potential championship.
But it gets better. That made Heat president Pat Riley rush to Bron's defense with a very careful and diplomatic reply -- OK, calling Smith's comments "absolutely stupid" was maybe not the best way he could have put it -- but wait, it gets better.
That made Magic coach Stan Van Gundy take Riley to the shed, citing a perceived hypocrisy from the man who was his boss in Miami for 12 years.
But wait. It gets better still. These teams will see each other a time or two this season, and perhaps next spring as well. This has the makings of the decade's best intra-conference rivalry, much like Celtics-Sixers in the 1980s, Bulls-Pistons in the '90s and Lakers-Kings in the 2000s.
Let's revisit the comments in depth:
Smith said he thought LeBron was "more of a competitor" than someone who would join a stacked team, repeating sentiments expressed by Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. (My take: Magic and Jordan didn't jump from their teams because those teams had Kareem and Worthy and Pippen and Rodman.)
Riley, in a conference call last week, said Smith "never made any kind of comment like that when he signed Rashard Lewis (to a) $126 million contract." (My take: I'm not 100 percent sure, but sounds like Riles snuck an additional zinger in there, reminding everyone how Smith vastly overpaid for Lewis.)
Van Gundy, in an interview now up and running on the OrlandoMagic.com, said, "Pat getting on people for making moral judgments made me laugh. I was with Pat when we had all those Knicks series and he had no problem making moral judgments on my brother." (My take: Don't mess with family. Blood runs thick among the Van Gundys, the First Brothers of Basketball.)
While you can expect Smith, Van Gundy and Riley to suddenly tone down the rhetoric -- only because that's what people do almost by reflex -- we know what bubbles underneath. We know there's no love lost between Van Gundy and Riley partly because of what went down in Miami during the 2006 championship season. We know Smith, calm by nature, is feisty inside and ultra competitive. We know Riley just put together a potential monster threesome with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and he feels the world wants to see the Heat crumble. We also have a fairly strong suspicion the road to the NBA Finals will travel down the Turnpike. Or up the Turnpike.
This can't possibly work any better for the NBA. See what 'Bron caused by taking his talents from Cleveland? He just woke up the league. Folks now will have an opinion, one way or the other, about the Heat, same as they do the Yankees and Cowboys. That's bad for basketball? Uh, not quite.
Because this is how it works in sports, the basketball community will rush to have the Magic fitted for white hats. The same folks who despised Vince Carter, for example, will now root for him. J.J. Redick might even get some love. And everyone will revisit Van Gundy's exit as coach in Miami and portray him as a victim, for good reason (although he did walk away with swollen pockets).
The actual games between these two teams will be intense, too, if only because these are two of the top five teams in basketball, stuck in the same conference, chasing the same brass ring, standing firmly in each other's way at opposite ends of one 236-mile stretch of highway. Van Gundy would love nothing more than a championship ring that he might actually wear, as opposed to the one he received in Miami, after he stepped aside and was replaced as coach by Riley. Dwight Howard has a chance to flex against Bosh, the big man Miami bought specifically for him.
Given what happened last spring in the playoffs, LeBron needs epic performances in important games, and Orlando games will be important for the Heat. Everyone has a stake in this, and so do those of us who will watch it unfold.
How's this for a scenario? The Heat and Magic engage in spirited regular-season games, each decided by the last shot. They finish 1-2 in the conference. They meet in the Eastern finals, with Jeff Van Gundy doing the TV commentary.
And the loser, instead of going home quietly, will of course have something to say.
When exactly does the season start again?
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