There was plenty to talk about in the locker room Tuesday night after the Lakers beat Houston to kick off the 2010-11 season on a rousing note. The ring ceremony, the game, the lift provided by Steve Blake and Matt Barnes in their Lakers debuts. Just to name a few. Personally, I wouldn't have had reaction to the night's early game between Boston and Miami high on my list, but I'm not everyone. Take a look at how Shannon Brown responds to a pair of questions (one open, one very leading) about the Heat and Celtics:
Brown is among the more polite guys when it comes to interacting with media, but still seems surprised at the idea he was supposed to be excited Miami lost. Kobe Bryant, isn't as concerned about tact. Asked similar questions about the early Eastern Conference clash, Bryant said he didn't give a (hoot).
Two (hoots), to be specific.
The Lakers, like all fans of basketball, are interested in what's happening in Miami, and will undoubtedly be keyed up for both regular season matchups. That said, they're not motivated by them in the way many in the media would like them to be. They're not trying to keep up with the South Beach Joneses, or hoping they stumble. There is, I believe, a certain resentment about how much attention they received over the summer and, at least in some circles, the way Miami appeared pre-ordained to win the title. That criticism isn't really about the Heat, but how we cover them. Do the Lakers want to win more games than Miami? Show the world they're the best team?
Of course, but they'd want those things anyway.
Talking to players during camp, I left with no sense they think of Miami as a rival, certainly not along the lines of Bostons, or squads in Denver and even Oklahoma City, where there is either a history or the prospect of more playoff clashes to come. There's clearly something there regarding the Heat, just as there's something to the "rivalry" between Kobe and LeBron James, but it's fundamentally different than traditional player-to-player or team-to-team rivalries of the past, centered instead around fan and media debates and the power of imagination rather than direct competition.
Interestingly, the same phenomenon may be taking place among fans. Any questions regarding the popularity of the Heat among Lakers fans were answered Tuesday, when we asked via Twitter who fans were rooting for as they played the Celtics. The answer? Boston. Yes, Boston. Overwhelmingly so. The same was true in the arena, where the game was shown on the Jumbotron. This is like Maggie Simpson joining forces with that baby with one eyebrow. Maybe it didn't quite freeze over, but it was at least sweater weather in hell. Judging by the emails we get, I get the feeling the enmity is, as it is with the players, based in irritation at the perception the Lakers, two-time defending champs, are getting slighted.
Add that to the pre-existing resentment many Kobe fans have for James, and what results is Lakers fans pulling for the Celtics. Do they hate the Heat, though, like they hate Boston? I doubt it. With the Celtics, it's about the jersey. With Miami, it's centered in large part on distaste for an individual player, and anger at the media.
What it isn't based on, though, is lack of interest. Lakers fans care what happens with the Heat. I care what happens. This is one of the great watershed moments in NBA history. Damn right I want to see how it turns out. We have company, too. Tuesday's game in Boston was the most watched regular season game in cable TV history.
I have a sneaking suspicion Christmas Day will be the most watched regular season game in history, period.
So again, there's clearly something there, but should that something be called a rivalry?
The most interesting thing about the relationship between the Lakers and Heat, between Kobe and LeBron, may be how it reflects a change in the way we view rivalries as fans and media, and (perhaps) among players, too. So much has changed in the NBA over the past few decades. Players move from team to team far more frequently, leaving less time to create the sort of mid-80's style bad blood existing not just between the Lakers and Celtics as franchises, but individual members of each roster with each other. Or the sort of enmity New York had for Reggie Miller.
Time and expansion has changed the schedule, too. Teams don't see each other nearly as often in the regular season, again serving to eliminate some of the contempt bred by familiarity.
The sports landscape has been transformed as well, from the way in which games are played to how they're covered and consumed. I won't call the Lakers and Heat rivals, not by any traditional definition, but I'm not sure examples of the traditional definition exist all that much anymore. Given the very real interest in both squads among hoops fans (and beyond), does the traditional definition need to be altered to include this sort of thing, or should we all find a different- and perhaps better- term?