HANG TIME, Texas — So much for the notion that all of the energy and drama was sucked out of half the playoff bracket by the Heat’s 27-game win streak.
Suddenly the Eastern Conference is dripping with more subplots than a Russian novel with LeBron James complaining that the Bulls abused him, Taj Gibson cleverly telling the best player in the game that he’s too good to whine, Danny Ainge foolishly and typically wading into the middle of the war with his mouth and Pat Riley suggesting that Ainge should “shut the (expletive) up.”
Oh baby, the only way this could only get more delicious is with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Or maybe Kevin McHale taking down Kurt Rambis with a clothesline.
Just like that, we’re back in the 1980s with LA Gear, parachute pants and an urge to sing “Beat It.”
Is the manipulative genius of Riley at work here with LeBron? Has the blueprint for beating the Heat been put on display? Does anybody actually need to light a fire under an imposing team that just went nearly two full months without losing?
Do we really have to wait three more weeks for the playoffs to begin?
Miami vs. Chicago. Miami vs. Boston. And you thought Indiana was the Heat’s only minor roadblock to The Finals.
Don’t we really have to pull for the Celtics to tumble into the No. 8 seed and open up against the Heat in the first round?
Before the opening tip, Riley and Ainge could square off at center court for an MMA bout, complete with the octagon cage.
Hopefully, the winner of that first-round street fight would then face Chicago in a series presumably played with helmets and full body armor.
Look, we can’t really blame James for feeling that the Bulls used him as a tackling dummy on Wednesday night. After all, he’s been raised and cultivated and ascended to his seat on the throne in this 21st century era that has become so polite and contact-averse that any day now you can expect the NBA’s discipline czar Stu Jackson to rule from the league office that defenders must play with their pinkie fingers extended, as if they’re attending a tea party.
“Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say [what I want to say],” James said after the game. “I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. The last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not defensive and those are not basketball plays.”
Of course, those of us who were around in the 80s and 90s or have learned from the drawings on cave walls about the times when prehistoric figures named Oakleysaurus, Mahornasaurus and Laimbeer Rex guarded the paint with sharp elbows and pointed attitudes, know that those used to be routine basketball plays. As James is trying to climb the ladder of greatness to catch Michael Jordan, let him ask His Airness if he was ever given a bump or two at The Palace of Auburn Hills or Madison Square Garden.
All of the good will and gosh-almighty admiration for Miami and for James that was built up during the construction of the 27-game streak could go out the window if the Heat players start to believe they should be unchallenged physically and simply carried on the shoulders of tributes to a second consecutive NBA title.
“I think he’s too good of a player to do that,” Gibson zinged when asked about James’ complaints in a radio interview.
The big question is what in the world could ever have possessed Ainge to enter the fray. Then you remember that he was just being Ainge, agitator and instigator and never a finisher during his playing career.
“I think that it’s almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating,” Ainge said.
And that’s when the real fun started.
“Danny Ainge needs to shut the #$!* up and manage his own team,” Riley said in a statement released through a Heat spokesman. “He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing and I know that because I coached against him.”
Give Riley credit. The guy who copyrighted the term “three-peat” back in 1987 could have another T-shirt selling bonanza on his hands with the blunt “STFU” combined with that fireball Heat logo.
It might not only have been the first official statement in known team sport history to include the home-run word, but also the artful, Machiavellian Riley’s way of delivering a just-as-short message to LeBron ahead of the 2014 opt-out clause in his contract: I’ll always have your back.
At first, Ainge backed off a bit.
“Pat Riley’s right,” he said. “I should manage my own team. I complained a lot to the officials. And I’m right, LeBron should be embarrassed about how he complains about the calls he gets.”
But just before Friday night’s game against the Hawks, he could not resist one more shot:
“I stand by what I said. That’s all. I don’t care about Pat Riley. He can say whatever he wants.
“I don’t want to mess up his Armani suits and all that hair goop. It would be way too expensive for me.”
Can’t we start the playoffs right now?