With all due respect to the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks, the 2010-11 Eastern Conference champion is going to be on the court at TD Garden tonight. In most hoops followers' minds that team is the Miami Heat. It is only in a few Green-partial precincts that the Celtics, the reigning Eastern Conference title holders, are regarded as favorites over the South Floridians.
Give the Heat the hype, the 24/7 ESPN adulation and the silly, self-serving Nike commercial. (Really, LeBron just let it go, man. You made the best decision for you, good for you. But that doesn't mean we have to endorse it or validate it for you.)
The Celtics have played the role of favorites before, and it's a little overrated. All the pressure tonight, and for most of the season in this instant rivalry (we'll call it the Sherman Douglas Cup) is on Miami. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh hatched their plan, remade the NBA in their image and now they have to deliver, just like Boston's Big Three did in 2008. Plus, let the record show that LeBron has never beaten the Celtics in any scenario that has been truly meaningful.
If we learned one thing about the Celtics last year it's that they play their best basketball when everybody is doubting them and not touting them. The talk at the start of last season was about the Celtics winning 70 games and striving to have the hardwood equivalent of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. The progeny of the parquet were presumptive favorites in the East.
That didn't work out so well, as due to injuries, ennui, and lack of regular-season resolve -- as General Manager Danny Ainge put it -- the Celtics limped to a 50-32 regular-season record and the No. 4 seed in the East. Nearly everyone believed their championship run had run its course, and then the Celts flipped a switch in the playoffs, toppled the Cavaliers and the Magic in six games each, and ended up a few rebounds away from winning Banner No. 18.
Which brings us to this season and tonight's curtain-raiser against the Miami mercenaries. The biggest collateral damage in the Summer of LeBron outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks was the Celtics' bandwagon. If LeBron doesn't elect to take his talents to South Beach to join Wade and Bosh then the intact-plus-Shaq Celtics are once again the presumptive favorites in the East with everyone anticipating an NBA Finals rematch against the Lakers.
Now, most of the hoops world views Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo as second-fiddle foils. That's perfect for Celtics coach Doc Rivers because Miami is a ready-made motivational touchstone for a team that has a tendency at times to rest on its one-ring résumé.
Rivers is already playing it up, and putting the heat on the Heat.
“All eyes will be on the game in Boston, but I think all eyes will really be on Miami," Rivers said yesterday. "We’re the other team that’s playing, and we’re just going to show up. But I’m sure everybody is there to see Miami."
You can already see Rivers telling his Big Three, "Everyone thinks you're too old, too slow, too injury-prone to compete with the Heat. Those rings you have are relics of the past."
You can picture him telling Rondo, "Everyone thinks you're the seventh-best player on the court tonight, a nice little sidekick."
You can picture him telling Shaquille O'Neal, "Everyone in Miami believes D-Wade won that title in 2006 on his own."
During a team film session he can show them where all the experts in the team publication picked Miami, and say no one believes in you. Wait, that's already been done.
Motivation can only go so far though. The Celtics created a monster when they sent James packing five months, and now they have to slay it.
From a purely basketball standpoint, the most compelling matchup in tonight's game is at power forward with Bosh vs. Garnett. The word out of Waltham all preseason was that KG's explosion was back. He could elevate again and thus elevate his game back to pre-knee surgery levels. We'll find out if that's true tonight against Bosh, who is one of only two players in the league to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in each of the last two seasons.
In three games, against the Celtics last season Bosh averaged 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per game while shooting 64.4 percent from the field. Garnett missed two of those games with a sore right knee. However, Bosh was precisely the type of athletic four that Garnett had trouble with last regular season when he did play.
One of the reasons that both Wade and LeBron ended up playing their final games last season at the Garden was that neither of them had any type of remotely legitimate big-man presence to challenge Garnett in those playoff series. That should not be the case now with Bosh. However, Bosh, whom Shaq once called the "RuPaul of NBA big men" has a reputation for being soft. One thing you can not be against Garnett is afraid.
Both Garnett and Bosh have something to prove on the parquet. I predict an early dust-up and double-technical.
The same is true for their teams. Miami wants to prove it's more than a paper champion. The Celtics want to prove they're still the team to beat in the East.
The first of the teams' four regular-season meetings should be fun and full of drama. But it's just the opening statement, one game out of 82. But it will give us some actual basketball talking points for Nov. 11. That's when the Heat and Celtics take their rivalry to South Beach.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.