If you are an NBA fan, you should start rooting for the Milwaukee Bucks to snap out of their stupor and the Boston Celtics to stumble down the stretch. Because that will set up the first-round playoff series we all want to see.
A slump by the Celtics and a boost from the Bucks over the last 10 or so games would drop Boston into eighth place in the Eastern Conference and a first-round matchup with the Miami Heat.
And to paraphrase Pat Riley, that would be f***ing great.
For those consumed by the NCAA Tournament, let’s recap what happened in real basketball late last week. The Chicago Bulls resorted to football tactics in slowing down LeBron James and ending the Heat’s 27-game winning streak. James said afterward that the roughhouse tactics are “getting to me a little bit.”
For some reason, Celtics GM Danny Ainge chimed in, telling WEEI Radio that James complaining about hard fouls was “almost embarrassing.” That prompted this response from Heat president Pat Riley.
“Danny Ainge needs to shut the f— up 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.”
You can draw your own conclusions as to why Riley unloaded on Ainge. From a Celtics standpoint, four decades is a long time to bite your tongue. From a Heat standpoint, it’s never too early to start recruiting free agents, including your own.
But Riley’s hatred of the Celtics was cultivated in the past, and his quest to retain James is a topic for the future. Let’s stay in the now.
Now, there is more fuel for a fire that has been burning for two-plus years. When James took his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, he did more than change teams. He inexorably shifted the balance of power in the East.
The arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in Boston in the summer of 2008 made the Celtics the beasts of the East. They won a title in 2008, relinquished it without an injured Garnett in 2009 and nearly reclaimed it in 2010, losing Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the road in the final seconds.
Along the way, they had an answer for James, outlasting the Cavaliers in seven games in the 2008 conference semifinals and perhaps expediting his exodus from Cleveland with a convincing six-game upset in the 2010 conference finals.
But since James arrived in Miami, there has been a pronounced pivot. In the 2011 conference semifinals, his 35 points and 14 rebounds fueled an overtime win in Game 4 in Boston that spelled the end for the Celtics. And facing elimination in Game 6 of last year’s conference finals, James initiated the chokehold he currently holds on the league, silencing a raucous TD Garden and his legion of critics with an overwhelming 45 points and 15 rebounds.
Heat-Celtics also has had plenty of, shall we say, extracurricular activity. There was the shoving match in front of Miami’s bench in 2010, while James was still in Cleveland. Hostilities resumed in the 2011 postseason, continued in last year’s series and picked up right where they left off on Opening Night this season.