Since suggesting that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat have a chance to become the new Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s, fans have chimed in that it will never happen because the two superstars, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, are too chummy, and there’s a general lack of hate between the two teams.
I say give it time, people.
Remember that the great Lakers-Celtics rivalry, perhaps unmatched in all of sports, predated Magic Johnson and Larry Bird by 20 years.
Those two gloriously re-ignited it while sweeping up a new generation of NBA fans throughout the 1980s.
And it’s also important to remember that Magic and Larry’s history predated Lakers-Celtics with their remarkable final collegiate seasons, Magic at Michigan State and Larry at Indiana State, and their improbable 1979 NCAA championship showdown.
That they each would join the league at the same time and land on the most legendary franchises in the Eastern and Western conferences was nothing short of an amazing bit of timing and terrific fortune for the NBA.
LeBron and Durant, of course, have no collegiate history to speak of. LeBron entered the league four years before KD and they weren’t drafted by hallowed franchises that would instantly pit them as rivals.
Fan feedback suggests that the off-court friendship between the two prohibits them from becoming arch-enemies. The two are Team USA teammates and won Olympic gold together. They are also admitted workout partners during the offseason, meeting in James’ hometown of Akron, Ohio, for grueling two-a-day sessions.
No, you wouldn’t have found Magic spending a week in French Lick, Ind., during the summer working out with Larry. But what if the original Dream Team had come along in 1984 instead of 1992? Would Magic and Larry have become buds off the floor? Would it have softened their rivalry in the NBA and diminished the intensity of Lakers-Celtics? Or perhaps enhanced it?
So many NBA players these days gather for group offseason workouts. It doesn’t mean LeBron and KD can’t compete against one another just as fiercely as Magic and Larry did — and their one-on-one battle on Christmas Day, with LeBron defending KD throughout, was as intriguing and entertaining as its gets in today’s game.
The larger point in talking up the potential for a greater Heat-Thunder rivalry is that it has been since Magic and Larry that the league has featured transcendent stars each leading the best team in each conference. The Heat and Thunder are favored to meet again this June and why should it stop there?
Other teams will try to cut in — the Lakers, Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies in the West, the Knicks and whoever else in the East — just as the Rockets, Sixers and Pistons did in the 80s.
Tuesday’s Christmas Day Heat-Thunder matchup, a 103-97 Miami win in the first meeting since last June’s Finals, ratcheted up the intensity to a degree rarely seen in regular-season games.
“That game,” LeBron said after he nearly posted a triple-double and KD went for 33 points, “was intense.”
Five technical fouls were issued with both teams’ highest-profile players being in the middle of it. Durant, James, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook all were hit with one, a sure sign that emotions were running high.
“We’re going to continue to play aggressive (against the Heat),” said Durant, who got into a early foul trouble, a trend that carried over from the Finals. “It’s just that every time we play them, I play a little too aggressive. I got to calm down.”
Wade and Serge Ibaka were assessed T’s after Wade and Shane Battier put a hard foul on Westbrook going to the rim early in the fourth quarter of a tight game. Westbrook crashed into the basket support only to bolt up and stick out his chest. Ibaka surged in to protect his teammate and Wade bowed up as a bit of skirmish ensued and an already physical game became a bit more chippy.
“Not chippy, not chippy at all,” James said with a straight face, leaving it up to the individual to decide if he believed that or was being coy. “Great, physical game. Both teams just making plays, but nothing chippy at all.”
Before pronouncing that Thunder-Heat can never challenge Lakers-Celtics of the 80s, let’s just let this simmering pot go a bit longer.
Mark your calendars for Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day of all days: Heat at Thunder.