MIAMI – If not for the Boston Celtics, 2007-08 edition, the superstar-heavy version of the Miami Heat that came together in July 2010 might never have happened. It was that Celtics team’s ability to gel around an instant Big 3 of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen all the way to a championship that inspired the Heat’s own trio of stars to do in free agency what Boston exec Danny Ainge did via trades.
So here they are now, five years along for the prototypes, second year in for the newer, younger versions, ostensibly headed in different directions. For LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat, anything short of a return to the Finals and an NBA title this spring will feel like a failure. For the Celtics, this is more of a last gasp, the Eastern Conference finals as a victory lap for a squad in its last days together.
Lots of NBA insiders consider this best-of-seven series almost ceremonial, two proud, ambitious teams headed in opposite directions. Their play this season would appear to back that up: Miami was a contender for the league’s top record for much of the 2011-12 schedule, boasts one of the most explosive attacks and stingiest defenses, had 29 blowout victories (by 10 or more points), has the reigning Most Valuable Player (James) and is humming again with its adjustment to Bosh’s absence due to an abdominal strain.
Boston, on the other hand, was 15-17 at the All-Star break and was sub-.500 (15-18) in road games. It no longer leans as heavily on its three stars, instead relying on younger point guard Rajon Rondo as its key player. The Celtics endured injuries early (Jeff Green’s heart condition) and late (Avery Bradley’s shoulder surgery), struggled to generate offense and had their hands full in the conference semifinals with No. 8 seed Philadelphia.
That would make the Celtics decided underdogs now, right? That’s not how they see it.
“I never look at it that way,” Rivers said before his team’s shootaround Monday. “We don’t look at ourselves as anything other than combatants. Call us what you want, but we’re going to come play regardless. That’s the way we look at ourselves. How everybody else looks at us, that’s up to them.”
The Heat aren’t heading into the series feeling like favorites, either. “We understand the challenges we have ahead of us,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They have championship experience. You cannot discount that, and they have proven that in the last two series. Everybody was counting them out. They’re exactly where they want to be: Everybody counting them out and claiming that they’re this or they’re that. They’re not. That’s how they’ve been able to win.
“Even when they had that championship run — seven-game series, they grind games, they do it with their defense, they do it with timely proficient offense. They still have the Hall of Famers playing out there. They have the five years of experience. They have all the grind games that they’ve been in. They’ve been in every single situation. Nothing will surprise them and they’re playing with great confidence now. Both teams are, and that’s the way it should be.”