BOSTON -- Having led the best team in the East back from a 22-point, third-quarter deficit, LeBron James pulled up for what would've been the go-ahead 3-pointer. What happened next, after the ball caromed off the rim with 3.2 seconds left, could serve as some interesting context if the Cavaliers and Celtics meet again in the playoffs.
The errant shot, one of nine 3-point attempts James missed on Sunday, meant that the Cavs would not complete this comeback -- would not clinch home-court advantage throughout the playoffs on this day without some outside help (which they received when the Lakers lost to the Spurs). But the end result -- Celtics 117, Cavaliers 113 -- was not devoid of meaning. Not in the least.
|Tony Allen had words for LeBron James after the MVP missed a last-second 3. (US Presswire)|
"Well," Allen barked back, "I did my job."
At this point, heading into a timeout, players on both sides converged near the Celtics' bench -- and the officiating crew converged with them. This little fracas -- "exchanging pleasantries" was the way the Celtics' other Allen, Ray, described it -- had come after six technical fouls in the game. Two of them on Cleveland coach Mike Brown resulted in his ejection with 6:02 left in the third quarter.
The blow-by-blow account of the extracurricular activities came not from Tony Allen, but from Ray Allen, whose 33 points helped give the Celtics perhaps their most significant victory since they beat the Cavs in Cleveland on opening night. (Beating the Lakers without Kobe Bryant in February doesn't count.) Ray's recollection was more than Tony was willing to acknowledge.
"It really was nothing, nothing at all," Tony Allen said. "Just regular basketball talk."
At the final horn, James walked off the court with his 42 points and popped his jersey, still jawing at nobody in particular.
"We don't like them and they don't like us," James said.
To which I say, good.
And get me some more of that.
This is exactly what Magic Johnson was talking about during All-Star weekend in Dallas. After the news conference unveiling the finalists for Hall of Fame enshrinement this year -- the class will be revealed Monday -- Johnson said, "You've got to play great on the court and have rivalries. What's missing now is, we don't have great rivalries."
Sunday's recap: Celtics 117, Cavaliers 113
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BergerSphere: LeBron vs. Jerry Colangelo
So after the game Sunday, James sounded as though he had read that interview transcript, spoken with Magic, or both.
"I think this game has lost a little bit of that in the years, as far as teams not liking each other," James said. "That's the same thing I kind of figured out last year when I walked off the court in Orlando. People were mad because I didn't shake hands. Why should I be happy? I'm disgusted that I lost and I move onto the next season. That's what the game has lost. It's lost what it had in the '80s and the early '90s, when teams really didn't like each other."
James was on a roll Sunday. In his pregame media session, when asked about Team USA chairman Jerry Colangelo's threat to withhold 2012 Olympic spots from players who skip the 2010 World Championships in Turkey, James said, "I don't respect that because of the commitment we've all given to the USA."
We can debate whether James should suit up for the worlds in Turkey or shoot a movie this summer. But he couldn't have been more right in his assessment of the current state of NBA rivalries.
Depending on how things shake out in the standings -- and the East is very much in flux after Andrew Bogut's season-ending injury Saturday night -- the Cavaliers could see the Celtics as early as the second round. With Kevin Garnett continuing to limp around, a conference finals showdown seems unlikely. Either way, the Celtics -- more than Orlando, it can be argued -- stand in the Cavs' way in much the same way that the Bad Boy Pistons stood before Michael Jordan's Bulls in the early '90s.
To say those teams, led by bitter rivals Jordan and Isiah Thomas, disliked each other would be like saying Ray Allen is a pretty good shooter. And as much as I think Orlando is the biggest threat to Cleveland's bid to come out of the East and face the Lakers in the NBA Finals, what I saw Sunday makes me want to root for a Cavaliers-Celtics playoff series to happen at some point along the way.
An abundance of great basketball will be on display once the playoffs begin April 17. But LeBron's right; there just isn't enough hatred. The Celtics, a fading champion with age and impending free agency conspiring against them, could give us a healthy dose of that in a playoff series against the Cavs.
"It comes from a tough seven-game series that we had [in 2008], from them wanting to be really great, from them winning a championship and us wanting to win a championship," James said. "Having to come through Boston to try to win, the regular-season battles that we've had, the battles between me and Paul [Pierce]. I don't know, the competition. That's what's good about this game."
The fans look at it the same way, Ray Allen said across the hall in the Celtics' locker room.
"They don't like anybody on the other team," Allen said. "They don't want to see us hobnobbing with guys on the other team."
No, we don't want hobnobbing; we want hatred. The Cavs and Celtics would give that to us, and I say bring it on.
Beyond that, evaluating the significance of the Cavs avoiding what might've been their most lopsided loss of the season -- on the road, without Shaquille O'Neal and Anderson Varejao -- is tricky. As James wasn't afraid to point out, "We're still missing a very, very, very huge -- literally -- piece to our team. So ..."
He didn't need to complete the thought. It's understood by everyone -- even the Celtics -- that Cleveland is the team to beat. Home-court advantage all the way to the Finals makes them even more formidable.
In saying that the NBA needs more rivalries like this, however, I don't think James was saying that the Cavs need more competition like this en route to the ultimate prize. As the Celtics built their 22-point lead, and TD Garden erupted the way it did throughout the 2008 playoffs, it occurred to me that the Cavs would just as soon see this giant remain sleeping.
"I think what we did today is good for our team," James said. "I don't know what they're thinking down there because I'm not in their locker room. I don't know what's going on in their locker room. But for us, we're not hanging our heads about this loss. At all."
Nor would I be disappointed to see them play again in a best-of-7 series a month or so from now. We all know how it would end, with James getting past his nemesis the way Jordan finally got past the Bad Boys. And we know there would be no love lost on either side.
The way it should be.