The last time the Boston Celtics played a game that truly counted, they had to endure a Miami Heat celebration.
New season, same deal.
Only this time, the party will come before tip-off — not after the final horn.
LeBron James gets his long-awaited first championship ring Tuesday night, when the Heat pay homage to last season’s NBA title with a pregame banner-raising ceremony. Dwyane Wade will get his second ring, Heat President Pat Riley his eighth, and the party is the prequel to a Celtics-Heat rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals that went seven games before Miami advanced.
”We’ll honor and respect what we were able to accomplish before the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
There’s another major story line, of course. It’s the first time the Celtics will face Ray Allen as an opponent since he left Boston over the summer and signed with Miami, a decision that his former coach and teammates were most unhappy about.
”It’s just another basketball game,” Celtics guard Rajon Rondo said.
No, it isn’t.
Even Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledges that much. After all, it’s Boston-Miami.
”If we win, do we get a trophy? We get one win and that’s it,” Rivers said. ”And if we lose, which we don’t want to do, we get one loss and it doesn’t mean we still can’t win it. But at the end of the day, we’re all human. … These games, they don’t really have more meaning, but they do have more meaning.”
It’s the first marquee game of the season, but not actually the first game of the season. That distinction goes to the Washington-Cleveland matchup, which starts on the Cavaliers’ home floor about an hour before Heat-Celtics.
The NBA’s three-game opening slate concludes in Los Angeles, where the revamped Lakers, now with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to play alongside Kobe Bryant, play host to the Dallas Mavericks.
In Miami, there have been a slew of upgrades at the arena over the summer — slightly different looks here and there, a new nightclub and restaurant, more concessions and bars for ticketholders to enjoy. The Heat will even offer fans the chance to purchase championship-ring-related merchandise, designed in the same manner as the players’ title-reward jewelry.
The upgrades extend to what’s going to be on the court as well.
Miami kept its championship rotation intact, while adding Allen and Rashard Lewis to the mix. Allen knows it will be unusual to see the Heat get their rings, especially since five months ago, he was busy trying to thwart their title march.
”I’m excited for these guys, having spent time around them over the last two, three months, getting to know them and their families,” Allen said. ”I’m happy for them that they won, but at the same time, they beat me and put us out. I understand the emotions that Boston will feel, watching the whole ceremony. But at the same time I’m excited for these guys. And once it’s over with, it’s business as usual.”
Boston’s roster looks improved, even without Allen. Jason Terry was signed to bolster the Celtics’ bench, there’s an influx of youth in the rotation, Jeff Green is back after heart surgery, and the remaining Big Three — Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — are loaded up for another championship push.
Still, the rivalry and the Allen reunion, make no mistake, weigh heavily on both sides. Neither Garnett nor Pierce has spoken to their former shooting guard since he signed in Miami.
”We’re not going to make this into a Ray Allen or Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rondo thing,” Pierce said. ”Right now my focus is on playing in the game tomorrow versus the Miami Heat. Everything’s that happened has already happened. He’s here. He’s happy to be here. We wish him the best for his family and the situation, but I’m more focused on the Boston Celtics.”
It’s the second ring-night in Heat history.
It’s almost certain to go better than the first one after Miami’s 2006 title.
Any mention of the 108-66 score from that Chicago-Miami opener still makes Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem cringe. They’re the last two players remaining in Miami from that Heat team, which endured the worst opening-night loss ever for a reigning champion.
”I just remember we got beat,” Wade said. ”I don’t remember the game. That’s how long ago that was. Different time.”
Haslem remembers plenty.
”It sticks,” Haslem said. ”But it’s six years later. You learn and you move on and you try not to let it happen again. We’ve got a different group of guys. We’re smarter, me and Dwyane are. And we understand the challenges of defending the title now. We were naive. At that point, we thought we could do it again the next year and just do it again and do it again and do it again.”
Well, actually, that is James’ goal.
He didn’t come to Miami for one title. He came for multiple ones. That’s one of many reasons why even he’s downplaying the ring ceremony and placing his focus squarely on another marquee matchup with Boston.
That being said, he’s not overstating it, either.
”Game one doesn’t determine who’s the better team,” James said. ”I mean, it’s game one.”