Miami Heat emperor Pat Riley isn't responsible for creating the NBA's culture of hard fouls and cheap shots, but no one in its history has profited so handsomely in the pursuit of perfecting it.
In honoring two historically indisputable professional habits – establishing himself as the patriarch and protector of his star player; and wrapping himself in downright disdain for the Boston Celtics – Riley sent a missive to one of his messengers on Good Friday.
"Danny Ainge needs to shut the [expletive] up and manage his own team," Riley proclaimed. "He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing and I know that because I coached against him."
This was a spectacularly jarring response to Ainge, who had chastised LeBron James and his declaration that the NBA and its officials don't do enough to protect him. "I think that it's almost embarrassing that LeBron James would complain about officiating," Ainge had told WEEI radio in Boston.
For Ainge, he has been his vintage self: agitating, inciting, inspiring an irrational over-the-top response. If Riley's response feels unprecedented, remember something: The re-recruitment of James to re-sign in 2014 is underway, and this was Riley's way to back his franchise star. Even so, Riley's never needed a noble reason to grandstand. When it serves his agenda, no one steps down off Olympus and delivers the arrows like him.
In a season when James had manufactured no storylines beyond the perpetual testimonials about the greatness of his game, his venting in Chicago on Wednesday night promises to be the beginning of the framing of how he'll be officiated in these playoffs.
This is a copycat league, and this episode will turn out to be one more way in which Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has become the most mimicked of all.
When Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson wanted to install a defense, he made young assistant Darren Erman – a Thibodeau disciple in Boston – his defensive coordinator. The improvement's been dramatic. And when teams want to defend James, they'll study Thibodeau's blueprint.
Of course, everyone doesn't have the Bulls' personnel to be physical with James, nor the ferocious defensive mindset within their players. Still, Thibodeau is stubborn and he'll never let his players back down to James and the Heat. So stubborn, in fact, Thibodeau still hasn't signed the four-year, $17.5 million-plus contract extension that Bulls commemorated with an Oct. 1 news conference.
"The deal's done," Thibodeau told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday night. Nevertheless, he wouldn't acknowledge that it had been signed because that still hasn't happened, several sources with direct knowledge of the contract told Y! Sports.
This is how Thibodeau operates, part of his maddening genius. He wears everyone down until he gets everything he wants – front offices, players, and often opponents too.
Back in his assistant coaching days in Boston, his contracts lingered unsigned, too. Looking back, no one is sure that Thibodeau ever signed the waiver confirming that he'd never sell his personal engraved 2008 championship ring when those were handed out to staff.
In the end, remember something: Thibodeau is a disciple of Jeff Van Gundy, who is a disciple of Riley. Deep down, Riley understands something: the way with which those Bulls engaged James to end that 27-game winning streak had been the ultimate tribute to Riley himself. Thibodeau sent those Bulls hard for James, and it stirred something within the NBA's MVP that no one had heard out of him this season.
James is a product of a different day in the NBA, a different generation and the evolution of the sport spared him the beatings delivered in the 1980s and '90s. Nevertheless, how James is officiated is an issue for the NBA this season and beyond. That's been true forever with the league's best players, and always will be.
More and more, the league office has made life easier for offensive stars – legislating easier paths to scoring, punishing hard fouls with free throws, fines and suspensions. Once, David Stern changed the rules to make it harder for the Chuck Dalys and Rileys to beat up on Michael Jordan.
Now, it will be Adam Silver's turn with James. Make no mistake: James and his inner circle have a strong relationship with Silver, who'll replace Stern as the NBA's commissioner in 2014. Silver is so fond of James' business manager Maverick Carter, he granted an interview with Forbes to render some fluffy quotes for a profile on Carter.
Stu Jackson has long overseen basketball operations for the NBA, but he's begun the pursuit of returning to the front office of a team, sources told Yahoo! Sports. The restructuring of the league office could ultimately be dramatic, and those within the NBA are watching closely to understand how it'll eventually trickle down to the product on the floor.
In the end, Riles' statement was one for the history books, one of the best two-sentence releases pro sports has ever seen. Riley needs enemies, and the Celtics and Ainge will forever play the part for him. At the highest levels, the Celtics and Heat share a visceral hatred and that's increasingly rare in this buddy-buddy era.
After a Game 2 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals in May, Ainge cornered the NBA's vice president of referee operations, Joe Borgia, in an American Airlines Arena corridor and tried to understand how James could go to the free throw line 24 times, the Heat 47.
Just trying to break free, Borgia finally blurted to Ainge, "I'm sure we missed five or six calls somewhere."
Boston believes Dwyane Wade went out of his way to hurt Rajon Rondo with a tackle that dislocated his elbow in the 2011 Eastern Conference playoffs. And, of course, there was the Heat's successful free-agent recruitment of Ray Allen last summer.
So, yes, James spoke out about all those non-basketball plays that have endangered him this season, borne out of a night when Thibodeau had his players honoring the lessons that Riley had taught Thibs' own mentor, Van Gundy, so long ago.
And upon stepping out of the shadows on Good Friday, as much as Pat Riley was taking shots at the Celtics GM and defending his own superstar player, he had done something else too: Riley took a bow.
They're all coming for James, coming harder and harder. Remember that it was the emperor of these Miami Heat who taught them all how to do it, who glamorized the hard foul and the cheap shot and the culture that comes for LeBron James now.
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