2023 NBA playoffs: It's time to include Celtics-Heat among best rivalries
It's time to include Celtics-Heat among best NBA rivalries originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
When you think of the greatest NBA rivalries, what immediately comes to mind?
Celtics vs. Lakers is an obvious one. Celtics vs. 76ers is another. The Bulls and Knicks had some great matchups in the 1990s. The Bulls and Celtics have both had some fierce battles against the Pistons, too. The Knicks and Heat have played a bunch of memorable playoff series as well.
It's time to throw another phenomenal rivalry into that mix: Celtics vs. Heat.
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These teams are about to play in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in the last four years. The Heat defeated the Celtics in six games during the 2019-20 COVID-19 bubble playoffs in Orlando. The C's eliminated the Heat in Game 7 on the road last season. Game 1 of this year's conference finals series is Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The rivalry between the Celtics and Heat is a new one. The Heat entered the league in 1988-89 and didn't play the Celtics in the playoffs until 2010. But beginning with that first-round playoff series in 2010, these teams have squared off in six playoff series (counting this year's matchup), including four conference finals.
Since 1971, the only Eastern Conference Finals matchup as common as Celtics vs. Heat is Celtics vs. 76ers.
And it's not like these Celtics vs. Heat playoff series have been boring, either. Far from it, actually. They've been loaded with exciting highlights, lots of Hall of Famers, animosity between players and executives, and much more.
Paul Pierce's only playoff buzzer-beater as a Celtic came in Game 3 of the 2010 first round in Miami. The shot gave the Celtics a 3-0 lead, and they eventually won the series in five games.
The next year, the Celtics faced off against the Heat's new "Big 3" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The younger, more athletic and more motivated Heat defeated the Celtics in five games. It was James' first postseason series victory over Boston after losing to the C's as a member of the Cavaliers in 2008 and 2010.
They met in the playoffs for a third consecutive season in 2012. The Celtics took a 3-2 lead in the conference finals thanks to a Paul Pierce 3-pointer over James late in the fourth quarter of Game 5.
What happened next was truly historic. Facing elimination and enormous pressure to save his season, James put together what many people consider the best and most important performance of his career. Game 6 in Boston saw James score 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting with 15 rebounds as Miami forced a Game 7 with a 98-79 win.
"My mentality (going into Game 6) was if we lose, Pat Riley might break us all up, and I don't want that," James said in March of 2020. "It might be the quickest breakup in basketball history. And not only they might break it all up, my legacy is going to take a huge, huge hit if I don't go out here and perform at an all-time high. Win, lose or draw I had to be focused. I had to lock in and lead us to victory."
The Heat went back to Miami and eliminated the Celtics in Game 7. A few weeks later, James won his first NBA Finals as the Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games.
In March of 2013, then-Celtics executive Danny Ainge criticized James during a local radio interview. Heat president Pat Riley was not happy about it, to say the least.
"Danny Ainge needs to shut the (expletive) up and manage his own team," Riley said in a statement released through a Heat spokesman, per a 2013 ESPN story. "He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing and I know that because I coached against him."
You know a rivalry is hot when the front office people are taking shots at each other.
The James-Wade-Bosh trio lasted in Miami through the 2013-14 season, but it didn't face the Celtics again after the 2012 conference finals.
It took eight years for the Celtics and Heat to meet once more in the postseason, for the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals inside the league's COVID bubble in Florida. Miami took a 2-0 series lead and eventually won in six games. Bam Adebayo's sensational block on Jayson Tatum at the end of Game 1 was one of the most memorable highlights from the bubble.
The Celtics got their revenge two years later.
Despite a few historic performances from Heat forward Jimmy Butler, the Celtics prevailed and won the series in Game 7. Boston had an 11-point lead with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter but a 9-0 Miami run made the final moments anxiety-provoking for Celtics fans. Butler had a chance to take the lead in the final minute but his 3-point shot missed and the Celtics secured the win by hitting their free throws. The victory clinched the Celtics' first NBA Finals appearance since 2010.
The 2023 Eastern Conference Finals will look a little different.
The Celtics have home court this time -- an advantage they lacked in 2011, 2012 and 2020 (due to the bubble). Boston also is a massive favorite to win this series, whether you look at analytics models or betting odds. The Celtics have a better roster compared to last year with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon and the All-NBA rise of both Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The Heat won't go down easily, though. Butler is one of the best playoff performers in the league and Erik Spoelstra is the sport's best head coach. Miami will be well-prepared and won't be intimidated by the Boston crowd.
It promises to be an excellent series and another exciting chapter in what has become one of the league's best rivalries.