BOSTON -- LeBron James wanted no part of the rivalry talk -- not this time in Boston, his house of horrors. No matter how star studded they might be, elite NBA teams need playoff battles before the "r" word can be properly applied.
This was before James lost another game to the Celtics, his sixth straight going back to the Cleveland days, and before a UFC match broke out in the middle of an otherwise sleepy, sloppy February matinee between the teams everyone knows and expects will be standing in each other's way in the Eastern Conference finals. In April 2010, when the Celtics owned LeBron and Dan Gilbert paid him, James had yearned for the days when NBA teams brought not only star power but also a healthy dose of hatred to the floor.
|LeBron James shouldn't be surprised when the Celtics bring a playoff-like intensity to regular-season games. (Getty Images)|
In addition to underestimating the venom he would face in this first season with Miami, James also misunderstood that the Cleveland-Boston rivalry simply was traveling to South Beach with him, along with his talents. He tried to downplay it Sunday, before the Celtics did what the Celtics do, beating LeBron's team 85-82.
"Regular-season games don't create a rivalry," James said at his locker before the game. "You've got to go through playoff series, like I did with Detroit in Cleveland and like we did against Boston -- and like we had against Washington my first few years in the league. Those are the ones where you know every play that's coming, you know everything about that opposing player that you're going against, and you still have to execute down the stretch to get wins. And that creates rivalries."
Somebody forgot to tell the Celtics about this rivalry moratorium, because Boston was the team that played like this one mattered. James has long been puzzled by the backlash about his decision to team up with Dwyane Wade in Miami, and you could only surmise based on his comments Sunday that he was equally taken aback that the Celtics have never stopped scheming to beat him -- not even in February. Not even in the regular season.
"We both know that we're in each other's way of winning the NBA championship, of course with other teams in the Eastern Conference with Chicago and Orlando and a few other teams," James said. "This is the team that everybody is trying to catch because they are the defending Eastern Conference champions."
LeBron had the ball in his hands on the last possession Sunday, just as he did at the end of that April 2010 regular-season game between Boston and Cleveland. Back then, James missed a contested 3-pointer for the win in the final seconds. On Sunday, he couldn't get a clean look after receiving the inbound pass from Mike Miller with 6.3 seconds left. He gave it up to Miller, who caught it at the top of the circle, took one dribble, and missed a clean look at a 3-pointer that would've tied the score.
"That's as open as you'll get against a good defensive team," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "I liked the trust."
Miller got open with help from a vicious, double-forearm screen from Wade that leveled Glen Davis. "I got hit by a car in Rome my first year," Big Baby said later with a smile. "Didn't faze me." But the physical tone -- and the proof that true rivalries are impervious to the date on the calendar -- had been delivered much earlier.
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The bodies started hitting the floor just past the eight-minute mark of the third, when Zydrunas Ilgauskas blindsided the ever-pesky Rajon Rondo with a jarring -- and quite legal -- pick as Rondo was disrupting the Miami offense near halfcourt. Rondo shook it off, and Kevin Garnett retaliated by dropping his shoulder and leveling Miller on a screen at the other end. Wade saw it with his peripheral vision, then went across the lane and decked Garnett for a flagrant foul, penalty one. Out of the rubble, the Celtics emerged with a basket from Ray Allen and two technical fouls shots from Garnett for a 57-46 lead with 7:28 left in the third.
"It's a physical team, and to go through this team, you're going to have to be physical," Spoelstra said. "And tough. Physically tough and mentally tough. We are capable of doing that. Nobody in this locker room is afraid."
Apparently, neither were the Celtics when LeBron and Wade decided to team up in Miami -- a move that, to James' great surprise, didn't affect only him. It moved the tectonic plates of the NBA, forming a tsunami of superstar wanderlust that has engulfed Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard -- and soon will infect other stars who want to form their own superteams.
But amid all that, one thing hasn't changed: The Celtics, whom Wade called the "seniors of the Eastern Conference," are still at the head of the class. They beat the Heat with only 8½ healthy bodies Sunday, if you count Paul Pierce (0 for 10 from the field) as half-healthy. Pierce is scheduled Monday to pass through the Celtics' busy MRI chamber, where his injured left foot will be examined.
"I told Doc that I really didn't have it today," Pierce said.
But the Celtics always have it against LeBron, no matter what team he's on. In the arena where James lost his last game as a Cav, that transformational Game 6 of the conference semifinals, he sat at his locker afterward and stuck with his story: The Heat-Celtics rivalry hasn't started yet.
"In 2007 when I went to the Finals, we swept the Spurs (2-0 in the regular season) and they swept us in the Finals," James said. "So you look into it, but you don't look too far into it. You guys understand that a playoff series is so much time preparing for a team, it's a totally different game. These games do count; I'm not taking away and saying the regular season is worth nothing, because it is. But you guys have covered the playoffs long enough. You guys know how those games are 10 times different than a regular-season game."
Last April, after LeBron's potential game-winning 3-pointer went awry in Boston, he said, "We don't like them and they don't like us." Whether he realizes it yet or not, that hatred -- that something extra from the NBA of James' youth -- hasn't changed addresses. Only he has.
"It's going to be a rivalry no matter whether we eventually meet in the playoffs," Wade said. "This is a team that has a lot of pride, that over the last couple of years have [had] control over the Eastern Conference. And we're the one coming up, the young team coming up to take that from them.
"They're not going away easy at all," Wade said, "and we understand that."
It's good that somebody does.