NEWPORT, R.I. -- Paul Pierce was still mulling over whether to re-sign with the Celtics, the only team he has ever known, on that night when Miami threw a victory party to introduce its own, star-studded Big Three. It had all the trappings you'd expect -- smoke, fire, loud noises, a windbag arena announcer, and the feel of a championship celebration.
|'If you want to win, it should be hard. It's not going to be easy,' coach Doc Rivers says. (AP)|
The show got more interesting that night, and the challenge bigger than ever for the NBA's titans -- the handful of teams toiling in training camp this week with a realistic chance of stopping the Heat from making good on their premature celebration. In many ways, the unholy trinity formed when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade this past summer is the Celtics' fault. Boston started the NBA arms race by teaming Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with Pierce in 2007, and the Lakers escalated it when they traded for Pau Gasol a few months later. The Heat merely went nuclear.
Doc Rivers doesn't begrudge them; he's an old-school guy who's learned to accept the realities of the new NBA, where these last few months leading up to a labor inferno are all about superstars using their clout to team up with other superstars. But now it is Rivers' problem -- and Phil Jackson's, and Stan Van Gundy's -- to figure out how to stop the Miami Ring Machine. It's Rivers' job to make sure that the one combined championship acquired thus far by Miami's Big Three (Wade's in 2006) remains their lone accomplishment for at least one more year.
And so barely a week after committing to return to the Celtics, still unsure whether he'd have his own Big Three intact, Rivers immediately started thinking about what kind of team would have a chance to do that. He asked himself two questions: How do we become a better team than the one that lost to the Lakers in the Finals? And how do we match up with them?
To be polite and comprehensive, Rivers mentions the Magic, Bulls and Hawks in the same breath with the Heat as he spits out a list of teams standing in the Celtics' way before they can even begin to contemplate a rematch with the Lakers. Deep down, he knows better. Everybody does. The Celtics are the defending Eastern Conference champs, but Miami is the target. Pat Riley's team is the one sitting at the table with the poker face and the best cards.
"The only way you can get to L.A. is, you've got to get through the East," Rivers said. "And the East is a monster. There's not a lot of easy games in the East. It's deep, it's tough, it's athletic. We're not athletic. We have experience and we have skill, but we're not going to blow anybody away with our athleticism. I'm thinking about the East, but I'm thinking about the whole, and there's no doubt you think about the Lakers. We would love to get back to them, but it's going to be hard to get back to them. We've got to figure out a way of doing that."
The first step was bringing back Pierce and Allen, who both followed Rivers' lead and re-signed. After that, the Celtics' formula was pretty simple: They can't match Miami's youth or athleticism, so there's no use in even trying. But they can out-size them, and they can defend.
"I know for a fact that there will not be a big man to come in here and dominate," Shaquille O'Neal said. "Impossible. ... Not on my front line."
Rivers, of course, was more diplomatic. The Heat have the best 1-2 combination of wings in the NBA, and there's nothing Boston can do about that short of hoping Kevin Garnett is healthy enough to somehow make them a better defensive team as they were when they won the title in '08. Boston was good enough to stop Wade and LeBron on different teams back then; now they have to deal with both at the same time. But while the addition of the O'Neals -- Jermaine and Shaquille -- didn't cause nearly the stir that Wade and Bosh did, it does present a problem for any team lacking that kind of size, including Miami.
"There's a lot of bigs in the East that you've got to deal with," Rivers said. "And the teams that don't have them, that means we have that advantage. So that's what we're looking at."
The other factor Rivers considered when he and team president Danny Ainge sat down in July and plotted their response to Miami's free-agent coup was something straight out of Red Auerbach's playbook.
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"Until Red's dying days, he said, 'Get as many agitators as you can get,'" Rivers said.
The Celtics have perhaps the premier agitator in the NBA in their point guard, Rajon Rondo. With the departure of Exhibit B, Tony Allen -- who famously barked in LeBron's face, "I did my job" after James missed a 3-pointer late in their final regular-season meeting last season -- the Celtics took on a reclamation project named Delonte West. After serving a 10-game suspension for a firearms conviction, West will be a key defensive presence on Rivers' second unit. Defense isn't Shaq's thing anymore, but his talents for agitation should never be underestimated.
"When I was calling Paul and all the other guys this summer, I was basically like, 'Help me help you,'" O'Neal said. "So I'm going to help them get two [rings] and I'm going to get five."
The Big Disser had only a few subtle jabs and faux praise for the Heat on Wednesday, saying, "They have a fantastic backcourt," but adding, "There's still a lot of other hungry teams. ... We don't want to waste time talking about what other people are going to do."
Rivers and Pierce, who've taken the ride together from mediocre to elite with the flip of a real-life trade machine, haven't lost much sleep worrying about how steep the mountain has become now.
"We had a goal before July 1 and we had a goal after July 1," Rivers said. "And it didn't change. It just made it harder. But like I told them: If you want to win, it should be hard. It's not going to be easy. Even if it wasn't Miami, there were going to be challenges; Orlando, Chicago, Atlanta, there's a lot of challenges out there for you. Miami just happens to be another one. Listen, if LeBron doesn't leave, then there would've been a challenge in Cleveland. They just switched the challenge south and made it a bigger challenge."
A bigger challenge and a better show -- the best thing on TV in July and possibly from October to June, too. But not without a challenge of their own; not without the Original Big Three trying to have the last word.
"We'll just continue to go at our slow pace and creep up on everybody," Pierce said. "Everything will be done and said, and at the end of the day, I think we'll be standing."