MIAMI -- Last summer, when the Miami Heat were plucking Ray Allen out of free agency and the Boston Celtics were answering with a roster retrofit that took aim at the champs, it seemed like an inevitability that this postseason would hold another great series between the two.
When Pat Riley was telling Danny Ainge to “shut the [bleep] up” and LeBron James was trash talking Jason Terry after a classic game between the two teams last month, it felt like destiny would have the scenario fall into place yet again.
But as the final scheduled game went out with a whimper Friday night -- the Heat won 109-101, but the game felt hollow with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce taking the night off to nurse injuries -- it's fair to fear that’s it this season between the great rivals.
Since the Heat won in Boston to extend their winning streak more than three weeks ago, the Celtics have dropped nine of 13 games. But the Milwaukee Bucks, who have dropped 10 of 13 (including blowing a 19-point lead Friday night in Atlanta), have been just as bad and kept the Celtics in the seventh seed as the Heat clinched No. 1.
It seems almost a certainty now that the Heat and Celtics will be separated in the playoff bracketing. The Celtics have pulled postseason miracles in the near past, but it will now take something rather historic for the two teams to see each other again, and that is a downright shame.
James has faced off against the Celtics four times in the past six postseasons. Those series have largely defined his career and contained both his greatest successes and failures. They’ve been as constant as a demanding older brother, and it would feel like a family member is missing from the dinner table if it doesn’t play itself out again.
“I’m so accustomed to playing them at some point in the playoffs,” James, who had 20 points in 29 minutes Friday night, said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Dwyane Wade has seen them three seasons in a row. Last postseason, when Boston beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 to reach the conference finals against Miami, James said “it wouldn’t be right” if the two didn’t see each other in May.
When the Celtics went 14-4 in the immediate aftermath of losing Rajon Rondo to a knee injury and Jared Sullinger with a back injury, anything seemed possible. Because they’re the Celtics, anything still is.
But coach Doc Rivers is toning down the optimism now with his team struggling. At this point, he’s giving major minutes to midseason pickups like Jordan Crawford, Shavlik Randolph and Terrence Williams, and there’s no clarity on how ankle injuries to Pierce and Garnett will affect them when the playoffs start in a week.
Most likely, they will start in New York against a Knicks team that’s hammered them twice in the past two weeks.
“With this team, we don’t have home-court advantage, and that’s a concern,” Rivers said. “We have Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett; other than that, we don’t have anyone who has been to the playoffs together. Jason Terry will be ready, but other than that, we don’t have any experience together, and that’s a concern.”
The Celtics have been playoff underdogs before and looked old and depleted as they limped to the regular-season finish line. They were a game away from winning the title in 2010 as an underdog and pushed the Heat to a Game 7 last season. Both postseasons, they were the No. 4 seed.
But, as Rivers points out, they’re missing mainstays Rondo and, because of Heat interference, Allen this time around. The well of chemistry and culture isn’t as deep. A playoff run this season would be these Celtics’ greatest trick yet.
“The cookie crumbles different ways every year,” Allen said with a shrug.
For the Heat, who steamed to their 34th win in the past 36 games as they got James, Wade and Chris Bosh out on the floor together after two weeks of rotating rest, not having to worry about the Celtics is an unusual feeling this time of season. So just in case, they will leave the door open.
“They may surprise the general public, but we know what that team is capable of,” Bosh said. “You never know with those guys.”