The New York Knicks would have been better off playing the Heat, no questions asked. Pitted against the Knicks, the Miami team Pat Riley pieced together in fantasy league form would have faced more first-round playoff pressure than any club in NBA history.
Yes, Dwyane Wade had his champagne bath in a different life. But LeBron James' Heat haven't won anything yet -- other than an undisputed place as the sport's most despised contender -- and the Knicks have just enough star power and postseason know-how to do to Riley and Miami what they always did to them back in Jeff Van Gundy's day.
The Boston Celtics are weighed down by no such baggage. Their core veterans have won a championship together, the franchise's 17th, and nobody is haunted by the Knicks' best-of-five triumph in their last postseason meeting in 1990, a comeback from a 2-0 deficit that didn't quite have the enduring regional impact of, say, the 2004 ALCS.
So out of billowing clouds of Red Auerbach's victory smoke, the Celtics will emerge from their locker room Sunday night as proud and determined winners favored to claim this series in five games, maybe six, before trying to defy the forces of nature telling them they're too old and too tired to beat the Heat in Round 2.
But the Knicks have a chance here to expedite Boston's demise. Chances are they can't beat the Celtics over the next couple of weeks, even if Danny Ainge delivered a fatal blow to his team's big-picture ambitions by dealing Kendrick Perkins for Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green.
That doesn't mean the Knicks can't hurt the Celtics, batter and bloody them over the course of a grueling series, and leave them powerless to hold off the LeBrons and Wades in the conference semis, a defeat that could signal the end of the Celtics.
And the beginning of Knicks and Heat as hostile overlords of the East.
This is the Garden's best-case scenario, a not-too-distant future with the Celtics retired to their rocking chairs, Dwight Howard off in La-La Land after following Shaquille O'Neal's flight path from Orlando, and the Knicks dipping into their 2012 salary-cap savings to hurdle Chicago and battle Miami's unholy trinity for control of the East.
Only Boston has to be killed off first, an easier-said-than-done proposition. The last time the Celtics and Knicks varsities met, Boston answered New York's elbows and forearm shivers with a fourth-quarter physicality and intensity that blew the home team right out of the Madison Square Garden doors and onto Eighth Avenue.
The Knicks weren't ready for the playoffs then, and who knows if they are ready for the playoffs now? If nothing else, Carmelo Anthony has looked a lot fresher down the stretch than Boston's graying elders. The old and wise Celtics lost 11 of their last 21 games.
"But whenever you're an underdog in the playoffs," Van Gundy said of his old Knicks, "you still have to expect to win two games on the home court of the higher seed. And what no one can see right now is the Knicks' level of belief. Are they happy to make the playoffs and content to put up a good fight, or do they truly believe they could and should win the series?
"You're not going to know the answer to that question with a quote before the series. You're only going to know by the Knicks' actions after the series starts."
As a 28-year-old aide to Stu Jackson, Van Gundy was on the Knicks' bench when they took three straight sudden-death games from the Bird-Parish-McHale Celtics 21 years back, including a Game 5 in the old Boston Garden that saw the leprechauns and four-leaf clovers suddenly turn in the visitors' favor.
The Celtics had scored 157 points in Game 2 before the Knicks barely won Game 3, blew out Boston in Game 4, and watched as Larry Bird missed his reverse dunk and Patrick Ewing made his absurd fallaway from the corner in Game 5.
"I remember when Patrick made his shot," Van Gundy said, "Stu Jackson slid so far down the sideline I thought he was going to slide into the locker room.
"We had Ewing and Charles Oakley and Gerald Wilkins and Johnny Newman in their primes, and Maurice Cheeks was a bit older but good enough to play at a high level and to play all 48 minutes. Those Celtics had some age, Bird had the bad back, and they really weren't the same anymore."
The same can be said of the 2011 Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, while the 2011 Knicks have the kind of younger stars (Anthony and Amare Stoudemire) and older but capable quarterback (Chauncey Billups) that defined the '90 team.
"Whenever you trot out Billups, Stoudemire and Anthony," Van Gundy said, "you have more than a puncher's chance. You have a chance.
"The Celtics have to deal with the unknown of health, and I think what they've lost in the middle with the Perkins trade and the injuries to the O'Neals, Shaq and Jermaine, can be critical. But again, it all depends on how deeply the Knicks believe."
They haven't won on Boston's floor since November 2006, and the Celtics took all four games of this year's regular-season series, beating the pre-trade Knicks and the post-trade Knicks, the varsity Knicks and the jayvee Knicks.
Billups still believes, or says he believes, his new team will be a dangerous first-round foe, or "a tough out." New Yorkers would rather see the Knicks as "a tough in."
But an upset of Boston is likely too much to ask for. Even if the Miami Heat are younger and healthier than the Celtics, human nature suggests the Heat would have been a more vulnerable opponent in the first round.
So the Knicks will have to make the best of a not-so-bad situation. If they can't beat the Celtics, they can beat them up, contribute to their ultimate demise, and clear another hurdle to the coveted Knicks-Heat conflicts to come.