This match should light a little fire

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 30, 2010

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WALTHAM — It’s one of those matchups where even a preseason game is a potential powder keg.

Last October, the Celtics were wrapping up their exhibition schedule against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Columbus, Ohio, and Shelden Williams tossed Mo Williams to the floor. Mo got up and threw an elbow at Shelden, and just like that — before either team had played a minute that mattered this season — there was already a dust-up.

You can’t even leave the mothers out of it.

In 2008, the playoff series between the Celtics and Cavs was already heated when Paul Pierce wrapped up LeBron James, tumbling into the crowd along the baseline. It was then that Gloria James ran toward the commotion, yelling at Pierce to get off her son.

Later, Pierce joked that if the mothers ever got into it, “My momma’s a little older, but she’s old-school. She’s got some tactics.’’

Celtics vs. Cavaliers — the latest edition of which begins tomorrow when they open their Eastern Conference semifinal in Cleveland — has become one of those rivalries where neither team forgets a thing. The Celtics still remember the Cavaliers’ make-believe photo shoots before games and the dance routine they did after handing the Celtics their worst loss of the 2008-09 season last April. The Cavs, no doubt, remember the “say cheese’’ smile Tony Allen had on his face two weeks ago when James clanged a 3-pointer that could have beat Boston at TD Garden.

“I just know the intensity level’s high every time we play them,’’ Kendrick Perkins said.

How it got so high is a question with many answers, but the most logical explanation is that competition breeds contempt.

“Just guys who want to win,’’ Perkins said. “We know that in order for each team to reach their goal — to win a championship — they’ve got to go through one of us. So a lot of noise talking when we play, a lot of guys don’t like each other.’’

In their four regular-season matchups, nine technical fouls flew. The intensity of the playoffs only amplifies the tension.

“Composure is the biggest thing,’’ Ray Allen said. “We have to understand what being tough really is and try to outlast them. So we’ve got to keep our composure and we’ve got to have great resiliency.’’

The individual duels between James and Pierce go back to James’s rookie year of 2003, when he threw 37 at the Celtics but couldn’t fight off Pierce’s 41. They’d battle again two years later, when Pierce would have to drop 50 on James to keep him at bay.

In the second round of the 2008 playoffs, they evoked the Larry Bird-Dominique Wilkins epic duel of 1988, going shot for shot in Game 7. James won the battle (45 points to Pierce’s 41), but Pierce and the Celtics won the war, knocking out the Cavs on their way to a title.

“I think it’s something that’s turned into a rivalry,’’ Pierce said. “We’ve played them already one time in the playoffs. It just seems like every game we play against them, whether it be at home or on the road, it gets kind of heated. So this is a big series for us.

“You’ve got to expect some tempers to probably flare, a physical series, just two heavyweights going at it for one thing and that’s to advance and go to the next round.’’

As the rivalry has grown, the circumstances have changed. The Celtics have aged. Their defensive general, Kevin Garnett, is showing the effects of 15 years of battle. Pierce shook off a string of his own ailments throughout the regular season. Making it to the playoffs in one piece was an accomplishment in and of itself.

James has spent seven years trying to win a ring. The Cavs were the top seed in the East a year ago but didn’t have an answer for Orlando’s Dwight Howard. Losing to the Magic in six games ate at James so much that he left the court without shaking hands.

Now, with Williams, Shaquille O’Neal, and Antawn Jamison, James is surrounded by the type of talent that has turned Cleveland into the top team in the league.

The Celtics have gone from champion two years ago to underdog, but in their eyes, this is no different from when they were a newly assembled team trying to knock off the defending Eastern Conference champions.

“We were an underdog the year we won the championship,’’ said Pierce. “Being the underdog is nothing new for me.

“I feel like that’s how it’s been for me individually. My whole career, I definitely thrive in being in that situation, just like I think a lot of people in here thrive being in that situation.

“We’ll see how it turns out. It’s no pressure on us.’’

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