State of the Heat: Celtics are no ordinary rival
MIAMI — The publicity-starved Milwaukee Bucks are trying. They’re attempting to add some spice to what looks to be a drab first-round playoff series. Milwaukee, entrenched as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, is all but assured of facing the No. 1 Miami Heat. The Bucks have been talking about how they match up well with the Heat, a team they have split the past eight meetings with, although they lost this season’s series 3-1. Guard Brandon Jennings said there would be “more pressure on them than us’’ and that “maybe we can probably steal’’ the series. Guard Monta Ellis said Milwaukee players “wake up and dream of playing the Miami Heat, and they bring their game out.’’ Upon hearing about such comments, the Heat just yawn. They know it’s hollow talk. Count on the Heat (62-16) making short work of the Bucks (37-41) if the teams do meet in the first round. Of course, when there is chattering coming from the Boston Celtics, it’s an entirely different story. Until the Bucks recently went into the tank by losing nine of 12, there was a decent chance the Heat instead would face the Celtics in the first round. Now, that would have made for a fun series, perhaps the most anticipated one in the first round. But since it’s probably not going to happen, we’ll have to make do for now with the final regular-season meeting between the teams Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena. While Miami has clinched the top overall seed, Boston (40-38) is all but locked into the No. 7 spot in the East and some top players on each side will rest (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce already have been ruled out for the Celtics), this one still has some extra zest. It’s the first meeting since LeBron James dunked on Boston guard Jason Terry on March 18 and gloated about it later. It’s the first since Heat president Pat Riley told Boston general manager Danny Ainge to “STFU’’ after Ainge criticized James for saying he had incurred some unfair hard fouls in a March 27 game at Chicago. “Throw out the records,’’ Heat forward Shane Battier said of Friday’s game. “It’s a cliché. That’s always a highly contested game.’’ The teams have met in the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, fueling tensions. The Heat came back from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Celtics 4-3 in the Eastern Conference finals last June. A month later, Boston star Ray Allen bolted to Miami as a free agent. The Celtics replaced Allen in part with Terry, a former Maverick who actually had expressed interest in signing with the Heat as a free agent before going back to his traditional role as a Heat nemesis. The shots between Boston and Miami continue to be fired. Not surprisingly, Celtics Hall of Famer Tom Heinsohn agrees with Ainge when it comes to James and the officials. "I think LeBron gets the benefit of the doubt period,’’ Heinsohn told FOX Sports Florida. “He can pile drive people and knock them down and that's OK (with referees)." The Riley-Ainge feud started after James talked about being shoved around by the Bulls in a 101-97 loss that ended Miami’s 27-game winning streak. Ainge then told Boston radio station WEEI, “I think it’s almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating.’’ While playing with the Celtics in the 1980s, Ainge battled the Riley-coached Los Angeles Lakers three times in Finals. Riley’s feelings for Ainge from that time were noted when he issued a statement through a Heat spokesman following Ainge’s remark. "Danny Ainge needs to 'STFU' and manage his own team," Riley said. “He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing, and I know that because I coached against him."
Riley’s rivalry with the Celtics simply has transferred from Los Angeles to Miami. And he’s got Heat players standing behind him. “It lets you know that we’re all family and what family does for one another, we stick up for one another,’’ forward Juwan Howard said of Riley's comments. “We support each other. Danny said some words that we felt as a family it was totally unfair and (had) no basis and Mr. Riley stepped in and felt that it was time to say what he had to say.’’ As for Allen, who had provided the previous big escalation of the Celtics-Heat rivalry until Riley and Ainge went at it, he has been watching with interest. “They have history,’’ Allen said. “If you think about that, they have history. It’s always interesting fodder when you hear what goes back and forth with general managers, but I don’t really put too much into it. I know both guys really well and I respect both of them, so they're both good at what they do.'' James, for now, wants to stay out of raising Heat-Celtics tensions. He claimed there isn’t any extra spice Friday despite what has transpired recently. I don’t agree with that. James himself added to it by gloating about his March 18 dunk over Terry two days afterward. “It's one of my better ones and the fact that it happened to J.T. makes it even that much sweeter because we all know J.T. talks too much sometimes,’’ James said. “I'm glad it happened to him." With all that has been going back and forth between the Heat and Celtics, it should be an intriguing game Friday even if it likely means nothing in the standings. It’s too bad the teams won’t be seeing each other in the first round of the playoffs. Whatever the Bucks might be saying, they’re still a very inspiring foe. Who's Hot: It’s April, which means Allen is starting to round into playoff form. In the four games he’s played this month, he’s averaged 15.3 points to raise his seasonal mark to 11.0. He’s coming off a season-high-tying 23-point effort Wednesday at Washington. It’s true Allen’s 3-pointer hasn’t been as deadly this month as usual. He’s gone 7 of 19 for 36.8 percent. But nobody figures to be worried about Allen’s shot come playoff time. Who's Not: Guard James Jones has not made the most so far of a last-ditch chance to show he could be helpful in the playoffs. The 3-point specialist, who has barely played this season but has been getting a look lately, has shot just 4 of 18 (22.2 percent) from beyond the arc in the past seven games he’s played. That has dropped his seasonal percentage to 31.1, the lowest since he shot 25.0 in just six games as an NBA rookie in 2003-04. 1. Heat Lite has been making a heavy statement lately. Over the past six games, Miami never has used more than one of resting stars James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Yet the Heat have gone 5-1, including a 103-98 win Wednesday at Washington in a game none of the three played in. "Most definitely we would be a playoff team," forward Rashard Lewis, one of the Miami understudies, said about how good the Heat could be without their stars. "Probably not a top-three team, but I think anywhere from there we'd be fighting for a playoff spot, just because we've got a lot of veterans on the team, a lot of smart guys on the team that know how to play the game." He’s right. Miami beat a Washington outfit that had won nine straight at home and had gone 25-21 since a dreadful 4-28 start. But at least one star might be needed to beat other top teams in the NBA. To start their stretch of resting players, the Heat won 88-86 at San Antonio on March 31 with just Bosh playing. 2. The Heat afraid? Who would even bring up such a prospect? Well, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra did. Following the win at Washington, Spoelstra made note of the Heat clinching the NBA’s top overall playoff seed for the first time in their 25-year history. “The home court, we have it,’’ Spoelstra said. “We don't want to be afraid of it. This year is a different year than last year.’’ Spoelstra was referring to how the Heat didn’t enter the playoffs last year with the burden of being defending champions and the NBA’s undisputed best team. Miami had homecourt advantage in three series in the East before Oklahoma City had it in a Finals won 4-1 by the Heat. “You can't be afraid of success," Spoelstra said. "And we've had a target on our back all year, and in the playoffs that's the way it should be coming off the Finals from last year… We had to earn that home court, and so we’ll have to prove it when we get there.’’ The Heat last year were fueled by all the criticism about how the team was assembled and about how James had yet to win a title. They won’t have that this postseason, when they will be heavy favorites to repeat. 3. Armed with the No. 1 overall seed and the most wins for a season in team history, the Heat have virtually no concerns heading into the playoffs. But they’ve got to give somebody something to write about. So perhaps the only issue is the health of Wade, who has missed the past six games due to knee and ankle issues. Indications, though, are nothing is too serious with Wade. He could get in a game or two to close the season. Even if he doesn’t, he can afford to ease into the playoffs in a likely series against the Bucks that the Heat should have no problem winning. “We had homecourt in the Finals and lost (in 2011) and last year we didn’t have homecourt and we won. You got to win on the road in the playoffs no matter what. I think what’s best is our fans get one more game to see us play in a seven-game series. That’s cool.’ — James, on the Heat having homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. “I’m still working with it. I believe it keeps my mind focused in. You do the small things to make sure you stay on top. I could run outside and feel a little pain and soreness but I wouldn’t show it. It is important to go play and it forces you to just cross your T’s and dot your I’s.’’ — Allen, who continues to play on his surgically repaired right ankle from last summer that he says is about 80 percent. “He's on a different planet right now. He's got complete control of the game whenever he wants it.’’ — Milwaukee forward Mike Dunleavy, on James. "I think LeBron is probably going to get his fourth MVP.'' — Jennings, on James. Players to have won four or more NBA MVP awards. James next month is likely to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five), Bill Russell (five) and Wilt Chamberlain (four). Heat players who have had games of 15 or more rebounds this season. Bosh has had three and James, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem one apiece. Andersen and Haslem joined the group in the past week.
The Heat will continue to rest players down the stretch but at least there is some incentive this weekend. The Heat will play host Friday to their hated rivals, the Celtics. Then on Sunday they play host to Chicago, which ended its 27-game winning streak last month. The final two games of the season are uninteresting. The Heat on Monday are at Cleveland, but there’s no certainty James even will play against his former team. Then they’ll close the regular against Orlando at home Wednesday, when there’s no chance of any of the three stars playing.
They might be one for all time. With the Heat having reached all sorts of milestones this season, they can go down in history as one of the elite NBA teams. Of course, that only will happen if they win the championship. Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson