NEW YORK – For all the respect LeBron James' prodigious talent commands, Kevin Garnett has long disdained the planet's best player. Part of it has been the cutthroat competition in the Eastern Conference, part of it James' precarious progression to maturity, part of it simply a belief that LeBron's full of it.
"Tell LeBron to worry about Miami," Garnett grumbled late Thursday. "He has nothing to do with Celtic business."
Garnett punctuated his words with a pound of the podium and snarl burning straight to South Beach. In his rush to defend Ray Allen, James blasted Garnett and Paul Pierce with flawed and forced logic. James called them out as hypocrites for such a harsh response to Allen's free agent fleeing to Miami, only to make the move themselves a year later.
Of course, James' assault made little sense, considering the Celtics traded Pierce and Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. The Celtics pushed Garnett to waive his no-trade clause, insisting they no longer wanted him as part of a rebuild. As a free agent, Allen turned down $12 million from the Celtics to take $6.5 million from the Heat.
Allen had his reasons, and they're well-documented. In the end, Doc Rivers could no longer get Garnett and Pierce to recruit Allen to stay, sources told Yahoo. Neither player would call Allen, and only Pierce could be counted upon to even text him. The partnership had run its course, and Allen made the right, if unpopular, decision for himself.
Nevertheless, two championships have emboldened James to take his shots – perhaps because he's tired of absorbing them for years. When asked about James' criticisms on Thursday night, Pierce said, "I left Boston?" It was his way of simply saying: What the hell's LeBron talking about?
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At 36, Pierce understands words don't carry the clout of deeds. This is why he delivered a shoulder block to James on a breakaway in the first quarter of Thursday's 86-62 victory over Miami. Garnett landed a soft blow upside James' head, too. For October, this wasn't bad theater. "That's going to be our identity," Pierce said. "That's a message to the league."
For everything the Pierce and Garnett deal represented about the Nets championship aspirations, it wasn't until the bargain-basement signing for an A-list free agent, Andrei Kirilenko, that some within the Heat organization truly considered the Nets a major problem.
Kirilenko gives the Nets a versatile defender for James and Dwyane Wade, an offensive threat who can fill the box score columns like few peers.
After chasing $8 million to $10 million a year on the market, Kirilenko settled on a $3.2 million exception with the Nets. Much of the NBA cried conspiracy, and the league office was forced into conducting an impossible investigation to understand the fluidity of Kirilenko's free-agent process. If the league office was trying to find an opening for a side deal, Kirilenko and the Nets simply explained this as a circumstance where the market dried up and a player accepted less to play for a big-market contender.
The NBA brought AK-47's agent and a union representative into the league office to meet with the lawyers, but the stories checked out. League lawyers reached out to front-office executives who had been in contact with Kirilenko on free-agent discussions – some who had interest, some who didn't. Ultimately, people couldn't do anything but grudgingly congratulate owner Mikhail Prokhorov and general manager Billy King on a job well done.
Prokhorov gave King an unprecedented threshold for luxury-tax pain – $80 million on top of a $100 million payroll – and King cobbled together the assets to make big trades, and had the recruiting chops to sell talented veterans on below-market money. In a lot of ways, it's been very Riley-esque.
Several teams demanded an investigation, but the Heat never complained, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Part of the reason is that Miami owner Micky Arison has a strong relationship with King and respect for him, but mostly the Heat understand what it means to be a target in free-agency conspiracy accusations. Truth be told, too: Miami's an organization that craves the competition.
As long as Deron Williams' ankle doesn't become a major recurring issue this season, Brooklyn should emerge as a relentless pursuer – along with Chicago and Indiana – of the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions. It started on Thursday, and maybe it doesn't stop until springtime.
An old fight with familiar old faces tumbled out of New England on Thursday night, and down into New York: LeBron Against the World. Celtics business had turned into Nets business, and only one currency remains accepted at the counter: Pure, unfiltered hatred.