Blakely: Time to rekindle long-standing C's-Heat rivalry originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
These are strange times we’re living in right now in which very little of what we’re accustomed to looks or feels normal.
Right now we’re on the cusp of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat -- two franchises known as much for their acrimony as their excellence on the floor -- renewing one of the more intense basketball rivalries of the past decade.
And yet the usual verbal venom that you hear in the streets in both cities from their respective fan bases and the contentious back-and-forth verbal barbs on social media channels aren't quite as stinging or vociferous in part because of social-distancing and the games being in played in the Orlando bubble.
But as much as all the participants in this Eastern Conference finals showdown are all about pleasantries at the moment, don’t be fooled.
When Game 1 tips off Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. ET, there will be technical fouls dished out for bad behavior, hard fouls being delivered and with them, much harder feelings between the players on both teams being formed and only hardened as the series goes on.
It won’t be long before much of the intense hatred these two franchises have had for one another over the years will return to the floor and be explosive.
I’m still waiting to see the prop bets as to who will pick up a technical first: Marcus Smart or Jimmy Butler.
Along those lines, how long will it take before both players are hit with a double technical for jawing with one another?
Of course the cover that most players in this series are blanketing themselves with is that the longstanding hatred between these two franchises happened at a time when most of them were nothing more than grade-school knuckleheads who had this crazy dream that they too would be ballin’ in the NBA someday.
But for players like Butler, it’s painfully obvious that he’s low-key buying into the value that comes about when facing a team that your franchise has had a longstanding feud with that’s akin to the Hatfields and the McCoys.
"Looking at it now, I think it’s fun to say there’s a rivalry and it’s the ultimate level of competing,” Butler said. “You talk about the back and forth between coach Pat (Riley, the Heat’s Team President) … it doesn’t surprise me; I love it. And that’s why we are who we are. The head of our snake, him, is like us.”
Those battles between Boston’s aging Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were epic.
It’s rare even in this day and age to get teams with so many clear-cut players who have Hall of Fame credentials yet still are good enough to lead a team deep into the postseason.
And as Butler alluded to, injecting Riley and his undeniable dislike for Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge only adds more fuel to the flames of a rivalry in which these two have faced off three times in the playoffs with the Heat coming away with the series win twice.
Their history of dislike became even more complicated when Allen decided to join Miami’s Big Three in 2012, spurning an opportunity to make more money had he stayed in Boston.
It brought upon hurt feelings among the Celtics players still on the team that were now former teammates of Allen, along with a significant backlash from Celtics fans.
But Allen’s decision was about business, just like the Celtics’ decisions in previous years to keep him in trade talks with other teams.
Going to Miami afforded him an opportunity to compete for a title (he was a key member of Miami’s 2013 NBA championship team) and not have to worry as much about potentially being traded.
It still didn’t sit well with many who saw his departure as yet another dig at Boston courtesy of Riley.
And if you really wanted to bring the rivalry home, look no further than the 2019 NBA Draft, when Heat were on the clock at No. 13 with the Celtics right behind them.
Miami selected Tyler Herro who has been among the most impactful rookies in the playoffs thus far, a player whom the Celtics held in high regard and most likely would have drafted if he were still on the board at No. 14.
The Heat love Herro and understandably so.
But you don’t think the pick was even more deliciously awesome to the Heat because it meant Boston wouldn’t get the guy they wanted?
So, yes, we have an Eastern Conference finals pitting two teams that have played some of the best basketball under the bubble, competing for a spot in the NBA Finals.
But beyond the game is this intense rivalry that for now at least, is being downplayed by most of the players and coaches as not being that big a deal.
That might change real quick, though, even with the less-than-ideal surroundings for what I call "fan engagement."
With all the games in the bubble, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum won’t have to deal with incessant booing from the Miami fanbase, and Heat star Jimmy Butler won’t have to be serenaded by the TD Garden faithful with, “WE-DON’T-NEED-YOU” chants as a reminder that Boston had multiple opportunities to acquire him but for an assortment of reasons passed on all of them.
This series will be intense and there will be moments when the anger and frustration and on-the-floor disdain will look as though it’s more than just physical, playoff basketball.
That’s what happens when rivalries are renewed, which is refreshing to see in this “Buddy Ball” era we live in where friendships on and off the court among players tend to trump feistiness among combatants when so much is at stake now.
Strange times, indeed.