MIAMI – He knew the moment the NBA schedule was released that his first real action in a Miami Heat uniform would come against the Boston Celtics. Yet, Tuesday night’s season opener was still one of the strangest nights in Ray Allen‘s career.
How do you prepare to face the men who were your basketball family for perhaps the five greatest seasons of what will someday be your Hall of Fame career? How do you deprogram yourself from all of the things that had become ingrained over that stretch? How do you sever emotional ties with a group of men you shared the ultimate triumph with?
For Allen, it came with every single move on the AmericanAirlines Arena floor Tuesday night, before, during and even after his 19 points off the bench helped the Heat prevail 120-107 over their Eastern Conference rivals on the same night they hung their championship banner and received their championship rings. From his first 3-pointer, buried in the first quarter and a harbinger of things to come from the veteran shooting guard, to the failed attempt to broker a little peace with fiercely loyal Celtics leader Kevin Garnett, Allen made all the right moves.
None of it was choreographed or even terribly well thought out on Allen’s part.
He was still shaking his head nearly 90 minutes after the game as he tried to describe the surreal feeling of playing his first game with the Heat with the last team he played against the Heat with before his (controversial) signing with Miami as a free agent over the summer.
“It was very strange, very strange,” Allen said. “A couple of times I would see somebody running down the floor and I had to ask myself who was I guarding? Which team was I guarding? Because I’m looking at both jerseys and my inclination was, naturally, to guard the Miami jersey. But I caught myself. I think I gave Brandon Bass dap one time when he was running back down the floor and I had to catch myself, so … my brain right now has to be switched over.”
So does his heart.
But his game is intact.
Allen had 13 points at halftime, sinking two of his three shots from beyond the 3-point line and 5-for-6 from the free-throw line.
“Ray was terrific,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He went right all game and we allowed him to, but he made a lot of shots. First play on the floor and we leave Ray open on the baseline corner, you would think we would know better.”
Allen was every bit of the threat the Heat hoped he’d be when they wooed him away from Boston with a chance to team up with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh instead of banging heads with them for another two or three seasons in an attempt to win another title.
“That is classic Ray,” Wade would say later of his former nemesis and now teammate. “He is a professional. I was so happy every time he hit a shot because it wasn’t against us and it wasn’t against me.”
Joining the Heat was a business decision for Allen. A fresh start. A chance to start anew in a different place, where his skills and his experience would be valued, where he could put injury issues behind him and move on with a renewed energy and passion for the game.
His decision played out much differently in Boston, though, as you might expect.
Garnett and Rajon Rondo were the most vocal about it, each of them choosing their words carefully when Allen’s name came up after the breakup of Boston’s famed Big 3(+1) of Garnett, Allen, Paul Pierce and Rondo.
In the moments just before the action resumed after a timeout, when Allen first entered the game, he walked toward the Celtics’ bench and shook hands and hugged Rivers, and shook hands with assistant coaches and other support staff on the Celtics’ bench. His last move was a pat on Garnett’s back as the big fella sat on the bench in early foul trouble.
Garnett didn’t acknowledge the contact or Allen, looking away as Allen tugged at his shorts and headed to the court to embark on one of the craziest nights of his career.
“Regardless of how they feel, I have nothing but great things, warm sentiments going in their direction,” Allen said. “One thing I’ve learned being in the NBA, guys make decisions for so many different reasons. Sitting in that seat, you never can tell what a guy is dealing with … so they can be angry at me. But I’m just happy that I had an opportunity to come back out and I’m still playing and I’m able to help this team win, and still have an opportunity to see those guys. I celebrate that, because I celebrate five years of great basketball.”
As for the non-reaction from Garnett, Allen insisted he wasn’t surprised and won’t lose any sleep over it.
“You guys know KG,” Allen said. “I ask you, did you expect him to react? I don’t take anything from it. Kevin is an intense competitor. On the bench he’s in a different world, in a different zone. In the five years I played with him, you just have to respect that … I don’t look at it any other way.”
To his credit, Allen said Garnett did offer a return gesture later on in the game, in the course of the action. But if things go the way both of these teams have planned, this will be just the first of many matchups between friends-turned-rivals. An Eastern Conference finals rematch is certainly a distinct possibility.
Allen still has to make that first return trip to Boston, where there won’t be any chants of “We Love Ray” like he heard from the Heat crowd Tuesday night.
James knows all about it, having had to make a strange trip of his own back to Cleveland two years ago after leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat. That’s why he was so happy for Allen to get this first one out of the way now.
“It was a little different for me,” James, who played just three minutes in the fourth quarter Tuesday night due to leg cramps, said with a smile. “My first encounter with my old teammates was in Cleveland. So it would be a different atmosphere at tip-off when we go to Boston. But I’m glad he came out here and played an unbelievable game.”