The Boston Celtics defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s season opener, 95-89. They would go on to defeat the Cavaliers in six games, paving the way for Cleveland’s end as a contender. They began LeBron James’ year by beating him and they ended his year by beating him.
Okay, yeah, probably so.
When the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics meet tonight in TD Northbank Garden, it won’t decide how either of their seasons will go. It won’t be a premonition of things to come (barring an unfortunate injury that would rob us of a great player on either side, knock on wood). It won’t change either of their chances to win the NBA title this season, nor establish one team’s dominance over the other. What it will do is three-fold.
I. The Cast Is Introduced
Miami has enough questions marks on it right now the Riddler is using them as a secondary costume. We don’t know anything about this team, not even from preseason. Pick and roll? Two-man game? Give and go? Pinch-post? What? What are we going to get? We need to learn way more about how this team functions in both role-oriented and play-oriented constructs before we can get a handle on where they sit in the food chain. If in fact they’re not running a set that maximizes the talent on that team, that just hopes to grind teams down with their ability to play basketball? That’s a far cry from a fully functional death machine.
Boston’s just the same. We’ve heard KG is healthy. We need to see it, full speed. Same for Pierce. We need to see Rondo come back with focus after a summer where he looked frazzled and worn. Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal have to stay healthy and spry for this team to compete, and neither are known to be so. There are questions on this team, even as their pedigree is resolved. We have to get a feel for what this team is setting itself up to be, rather than what it says it is.
II. Matchups, Always Matchups
Pierce-LeBron is fairly familiar. Rondo-Wade is to a certain degree, but not really. KG-Bosh as well. But everything else is an unknown entity, including how Boston chooses to attack the Heat defensively. This game will be represented as a Heat-offense vs. Boston-defense, but in reality, it’s going to be won on the other side. Because the Heat are going to score, and Boston will get some stops. It’s the other side that creates a lot more questions. The Heat’s preseason defense looked phenomenal… in the preseason. Can they match up with this team? Can James stick to Pierce and keep him off that elbow-jumper? Can Bosh man-up and keep Garnett from killing him in the post? Can Wade stick to Rondo and can their help defense rotate like it’s going to need to? These are all things we need to see.
III. Who’s Ready For The Challenge?
Desire is the clichéd and biggest part of this game, this season, this league. It’s such a ridiculously corny concept, and yet it holds true year after year after year. And tonight will be largely about desire. Which team wants this more. Which team wants to send a message to the other that it’s in charge of this conference now, regardless of history or hype? Sure, Boston can lose this game like it can lose any regular season game and rely on their prowess in the postseason. But if they want to set the tone, to put that doubt in Miami’s mind, and to let the media, fans, and world know that they’re still the top dog, and now with the biggest dog of them all in Shaq, they are the favorites now and forever, they need to show Miami that.
Miami, for their part, have every expectation in the world beating down on them. Win, and the season is off to a storybook start for the Triad, and all the haters will have to live with the knowledge that this team is legit, if only in terms of being a top seed in the East before they get a chance to prove it “when it counts.” Lose? And the questions rain down, the pressure ramps up, and everyone’s that’s criticized them from day one will be forming a mob to throw tomatoes in print and cyber-space at them. It will be about their egos, their heart, their pride and not about Boston’s man-help rotation to the strong side or the size advantage on the glass. This is the reality the Heat have made for themselves, and now they have to live with it. Tonight there’s a lot we’ll see that won’t matter. But how this team decides to represent itself from the start? That’s something worth watching.