MIAMI - While the Bulls and Pacers were also considered legitimate threats in the Eastern Conference playoffs, there is absolutely no surprise that Miami and Boston are battling for the right to play in the NBA Finals.
Great rivalries just seem to have a way of happening, and the Heat consider their matchup with the Celtics part of their destiny if they are to win a championship. The 76ers would have been a worthy opponent, but the Heat feel it will be more relevant if they go through the Celtics.
The conference finals begin Monday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, and this is the third consecutive year the teams have met in the playoffs. The Heat were simply an appetizer during the Celtics’ 2010 run to the Finals as they took out Dwyane Wade’s one-man show in five games in the first round.
Last year, the first of the Miami Big Three of Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, the Heat eliminated the Celtics in five games in the conference semifinals. After the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo dislocated his left elbow, it left him essentially playing with one arm the final two games of the series.
This time around, while the Celtics are an aging bunch perhaps on their final run as a core group, they are hardly viewed as underdogs by the Heat.
“I wouldn’t have it no other way, personally,’’ James, the league’s Most Valuable Player, said after the Heat’s practice Sunday. “This is really the only team I’m accustomed to playing in the playoffs. No matter where I go, I find a way to play Boston. I wouldn’t have it no other way.’’
Wade has had many tough experiences against the Celtics, and one of James’s more painful NBA moments - a Game 5 loss in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals while with the Cavaliers - was a direct result of the Celtics’ unrelenting defense. Wade and James nearly were moved to tears last May after they eliminated the Celtics.
This season, the Celtics began 15-17, hardly resembling an Eastern Conference contender. The Bulls were supposed to emerge and be Miami’s main adversary.
But the Celtics got healthy, moved Kevin Garnett to center, and won their final three regular-season meetings with the Heat.
The torn left anterior cruciate ligament sustained by the Bulls’ Derrick Rose in Game 1 of the first round against the 76ers set the course for the Heat-Celtics rematch. Philadelphia was able to upset the Rose-less Bulls and the Celtics beat the Hawks and finally overcame the 76ers to meet the Heat.
It is destiny. Heat-Celtics is a matchup the national audience has been anticipating. Can the Heat finally end the Celtics’ Big Three Era? Or will Boston coach Doc Rivers find a way to outfox James again?
“We’ve got a lot of history, and no matter what location I’m in, it comes down to find a way to play these guys in the postseason,’’ James said. “So it’s always fun going against the best. We don’t buy into [the Celtics being old]; it’s a really good team, a great team, a championship coach . . . ’’
Of course, the Celtics aren’t at full strength, with Ray Allen nursing a bad ankle and Avery Bradley, a potential Wade stopper, out for the rest of the postseason because of shoulder surgery. The Heat aren’t whole either, with Bosh expected to miss most of the series with a strained abdominal muscle.
Both sides are refusing to offer injuries as an excuse. Great rivalries don’t allow for that. The Celtics tried to take advantage of their day off after a grueling series against the 76ers and hoped to be ready for Monday night’s Game 1. And after preparing for both Philadelphia and Boston, the Heat used Sunday to more intensely focus on the team they truly wanted, the Celtics.
“This is the biggest matchup the Eastern Conference can have, so we accept the challenge and look forward to the series,’’ Wade said. “It seems like we play them every year, yeah. They have three Hall of Famers and a rising Hall of Famer in Rondo, so that’s the way it should be. Since those guys got together in ’08, they’ve been where they should be, a dominant team in the Eastern Conference, kind of like the Detroit Pistons before them. Every year you can book them to be fighting against one of the other better teams in the Eastern Conference.
“If you beat a team like that, it’s kind of like that should be the Finals. They are very physical; they challenge your mind because they are a very smart ball club. They are not going to ever quit. So last year we beat them in five, but man it was like a nine-game series.’’
Here we go again. The hulking James and crafty Wade are standing between the Celtics and perhaps one more trip to the Finals. And neither side would want it any other way.