BOSTON — On Tuesday, very quietly, a great rivalry may come to an end.
The versions of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat that play each other Tuesday night are likely to be watered down by injuries and coaches looking to give their stars a rest. Chris Bosh has not played in a week, Dwyane Wade has aged before our eyes and probably needs rest, and even LeBron James has eaten enough minutes this season to warrant some down time. Boston also has sat some of its stars this week, preparing for a long and arduous shot at another championship.
In fact, the playoffs are largely set. Two games behind the Chicago Bulls with two to play, the Heat are almost assured of the second seed in the East. The Celtics, as Atlantic Division champions, will be the fourth seed and play the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Though Boston is still trying to secure home court for that series, the priority for both teams seems to be ensuring that key players are rested and ready when the playoffs begin this weekend.
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But if the stars don’t play Tuesday, it’ll be a shame. Because it seems entirely possible that this will be the last, if diluted, installment of a rivalry that has helped shape the NBA the past two years with its hatred and passion.
After all, it was the Celtics who set the model for bringing three stars together, molding Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett into an ensemble that won a championship in its first year. Then, when the Heat seemed to have perfected that Big Three approach, the Celtics became the fiercest adversaries against what much of the league saw as a naked, arrogant power grab. The rivalry was off and running.
Now, with two years of bruises and injuries and egos and anger and great basketball having intensified the feelings between these rivals, the only scenario that remains in which these teams face each other as constructed one final time would happen in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s possible, sure, but far from guaranteed.
After this season, the Celtics are almost certain to begin to rebuild in a form so different that it’ll snap the team’s complicated and emotional connection with Miami. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will be free agents, and there are widespread reports that Boston general manager Danny Ainge nearly blew up this team this season. Age is upon them. Ainge knows it. They are trying to make one last great run. He probably knows that, too. Come what may, this is likely the last go-round for this particular Celtics team.
The Heat also could be in store for a remix. If Miami fails to win the championship this year, it would be possible — in fact, it would be smart — to blow it up and move some pieces around. Expectations matter, and failing two years in a row to meet them might warrant a radical rethinking of the Miami Heat.
Either way, the very special bond that made Heat vs. Celtics must-see TV is likely on its last leg.
These are teams that loathed each other, that had players happy to tweet taunts to one another, to sneer at the other across the floor — and that brought out the absolute best in both.
Last season, Boston battered Miami in the regular season with a level of play that perhaps opened the Heat’s eyes to what they could expect come the playoffs: The intensity, the burning need of their opponents to crush them, the level of play necessary to overcome such obstacles. After every loss, Wade and James looked lost and confused. That turmoil, many think, fortified them for what was to come.
But for a historic Finals collapse, the Heat would be champions — and Boston, in large part, would have offered the lessons that helped make it so.
Boston, too, has benefited from this shared animosity. Were it not for Wade pulling Rajon Rondo to the floor and dislocating his elbow in the playoffs last year, Boston might well have advanced against the Heat. That fact surely burns bright now, and it’s worth wondering if Miami’s excellence in the first half of this season — the clear fact of the hated rival again rising, again so formidable and celebrated — inspired Boston’s remarkable turnaround.
The Celtics, 15-17 at the All-Star break, have gone 22-10 since then, including two convincing routs of the Heat.
Have no doubt: Both these teams at this very moment are championship contenders. Miami has the talent, if not the depth, to beat anyone in a seven-game series. And the Celtics, with Rondo at the helm and their own Big Three making one last push for pride and glory, can say the same for themselves.
Whatever happens Tuesday night in Boston — whatever players do or do not play, whatever the outcome — the fact will remain that this is a final regular-season showdown between rivals that both coined the Big Three, that shaped the NBA and each other, and that set the tone for the past two years.
The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics hate each other with a passion. What a sad shame that fact is so near to its end.