Round One in Celtics-Heat is a sign of bare-knuckle battles to come
The season opener between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat Tuesday night proved that they're both better than the last time we saw them, and they'll be up to no good against each other for many entertaining months to come.
The frustration and competitive resolve came out at the end, when Rajon Rondo wrapped his arm around Dwyane Wade's neck for a flagrant foul in the closing seconds of Round One in what will be a long Eastern Conference championship fight.
Rondo hadn't forgotten that time in the playoffs two years ago when Wade pulled him down and bent his arm backwards, hadn't forgotten how Wade had gotten away with warding him off on a drive to the basket earlier in this game. Nor had Rondo forgotten how the Heat sent the Celtics home -- sent them hurtling toward a gut-checking, transformative offseason -- in Game 7 of the conference finals last spring.
This was garbage time in the regular-season opener Tuesday night in Miami, not Game 7 of the conference finals or anything close to it. This was after the Celtics had managed to sanitize the scoreboard during a 14-3 run with LeBron James in the locker room tending to cramps and admiring his shiny new championship ring. But if we learned anything from the first of at least four meetings between these teams in 2012-13, it is that there's no such thing as garbage time when the Celtics and Heat are on the same floor. The claws and fangs and cold shoulders are always proudly displayed.
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Now, more than ever.
It was an 11-point Miami lead when Rondo wrapped up Wade en route to the basket, and it was Miami 120, Boston 107 when it was over 16 seconds later. Three things were abundantly clear when the horn sounded:
1) The Heat team that raised its championship banner Tuesday night is better than the one that embraced the trophy last June.
2) The Celtics team that lost to Miami Tuesday night is better, more versatile and more dangerous than the one that lost to the Heat in last season's conference finals.
3) They like each other even less.
All of the above is good for everyone involved, and despite the unsightly number of points surrendered by Boston -- 120? Really? -- there couldn't have been a better way to ring in the new season than with these two. If you needed any more evidence, how about Wade's postgame quote on the Rondo flagrant?
"It was a punk play," Wade told reporters in Miami. "He clotheslined me."
Yes, the Heat and Celtics are back -- and with them, the NBA.
It was a fundamental fact that the Heat would be better, having dramatically improved their floor-spacing ability with the addition of Rashard Lewis (10 points off the bench Tuesday night) and Allen (19 points in 30 minutes). The addition of Allen served the dual purposes of making Miami better and subtracting one of the Celtics' heart-and-soul leaders and their second most lethal offensive triggerman after Paul Pierce.
Those facts were on full display in Game 1 of this eight-month grind, as Allen and Lewis gave Miami the kind of deep-shooting potency they were at their best with in the Finals when they got it from Shane Battier and Mike Miller.
The Celtics? As much as they miss Allen in theory -- clearly, they've moved on emotionally -- they're potentially more dangerous with the mix of backcourt players who've replaced him. Though Terry struggled Tuesday night (2-for-7, eight points), the combination of Terry, Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa and, when he returns from injury, Avery Bradley, will give Doc Rivers more options than he'll know what to do with on both ends of the floor.
Playing small plays right into Miami's hands, and once Rivers gets starter-quality contributions out of rookie Jared Sullinger, he won't have to trick up his rotation the way he was forced to in the opener. But however Rivers figures this out, it's a safe bet that the Celtics will defend better in May and June than they did on Oct. 30. If so, it isn't as crazy as it once seemed that Miami won't be the only Eastern Conference power that got better when Allen changed sides in the East's fiercest rivalry.
Just how fierce that rivalry remains was on full display Tuesday night, and will be for months. There was Kevin Garnett giving Allen the cold shoulder when his former teammate came over and patted him on it as he checked in for his first official possession for the enemy. And at the end, there was Rondo -- not forgetting, not giving an inch -- wrapping up Wade and keeping him from getting one more shot off.
"They're the team to beat; they're the champions," Rondo had said of Miami during the preseason. "So we've got to give them respect, and we've got to go out there and put it to them. Not just them, everybody."
After the NBA's debut night in 2012-13, we can all rest assured: The Heat and the Celtics are both better than the last time we saw them, and they'll be putting it to each other for many entertaining months to come.
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