Posted Apr 30 2011 6:43PM
MIAMI -- What if somebody threw three All-Stars together, for the sake of stacking a team to win a championship, and nobody declared the NBA over as we knew it?
That actually happened. And the league survived. Imagine that. The basketball world did not consider such team a disgrace, and refused to hate one player in particular who was thrilled to finally be relieved of carrying a team by himself. The Celtics were allowed to go about their business of winning a championship free from nightly abuse on the road. Folks were happy for Kevin Garnett. The idea of uniting KG, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce was considered brilliant.
Of course, that was so 2007. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade changed all the rules last summer. Or maybe the rules were changed specifically for them.
That's what makes this playoff series so unique, if only because of the hypocritical ring to it. There will be a healthy segment of the basketball world rooting hard for the Celtics to beat the Heat, conveniently forgetting or ignoring that the Celtics are a virtual carbon copy, just older.
Obviously, KG and Allen did not sign as free agents to hook up with Pierce, but they didn't exactly beg to stay in Minnesota and Seattle, either. You might correctly assume that being traded to Boston was given their rousing approval.
Meanwhile: LeBron leaving Cleveland? Bosh bolting Toronto? To join Wade in Miami? Well, you don't need to be reminded of the R-rated reaction, which stretched an entire season and in every city.
"The reception we get, it's not anything strange to us anymore," Bosh said.
The only difference is the Celtics didn't throw a party right after it became official, and months before the season began. Of course, that, too was blamed on LeBron, even though the idea was the Heat's, for the purpose of whipping up a season-ticket frenzy in a lousy basketball town. But why let facts get between LeBron and the darts hurled his way?
Miami spent three long years dumping salary and making sacrifices and burning a portion of Wade in his prime just to put itself in position to copy the Celtics. And suddenly, when the Heat hit the free agent jackpot, it was a crime against basketball.
No. If anything, it was a blessing for basketball, and the ratings the next two weeks will confirm that.
Since 2007, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals each year KG was healthy, and right now, he's got his giddy-up on. The big issue, though, is whether general manager Danny Ainge torpedoed his team's chances by trading Kendrick Perkins, who would've had an advantage in this series. Still, the Celtics are fresh from a rude sweeping of the Knicks, thanks to the alarm clock inside Rajon Rondo's head.
"They beat you with precision," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "They carve you up with all that experience."
The Heat were less convincing against the Sixers, a series they appeared to play while wearing flip-flops. Their starts to games and their finishes in the first round were equally sloppy and uninspiring. But this isn't the same team that began the season 9-8, or the team that was swatted aside by the Celtics in three out of four meetings. LeBron and Wade are fast becoming the best combination in Miami since sand and water, while Bosh used the first round to develop a swagger he'll need against KG.
There are other tasty subplots. Will Shaquille O'Neal wheeze his way through the series? (How could he, when they rested The Big Fossil specifically for this?) If Udonis Haslem plays, will he make an impact? (Doubtful, because you don't return from five months off and be sharp for the playoffs against a team like Boston. Against Minnesota in January, fine.) Will Allen issue paybacks for losing the 3-Point Shootout to James Jones? (We'll let you answer that.) Will the frightening thought of Mike Bibby guarding Rondo force Miami to play Mario Chalmers 30-plus minutes? (Rondo likes that idea, too.)
But as you know, Heat-Celtics will mainly be about LeBron, because this is where it all began for him. His fall from public affection has roots in last spring's series with the Celtics, when LeBron suspiciously showed up missing, and the Cavaliers were stumped and eventually thumped. His loyalty was called into question, along with his ability to close out games, and soon after he found himself the subject of scorn, fair or not.
"We always thought we'd go through Boston," LeBron said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge."
A big series for LeBron and a victory for Miami will give LeBron a measure of vindication, although it'll also send a fresh round of distaste in the Heat's direction, no doubt.
We will surely see drama, some terrific basketball, a dose of suspense and perhaps, as Bosh said, "a long, long series." This is what you wanted, a meeting between two teams with more in common than you care to know.
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