Miami's star-studded cast faces biggest test is series with Boston
Chris Bosh approached the Miami Heat locker room Wednesday night expecting to revel in the first playoff series win of his eight-year career. Did his teammates celebrate with him?
"No, I wish," said Bosh after Miami finished its five-game victory over the visiting 76ers this week. "It's funny, somebody told me when you go to the second round, it's crazy, everybody hugging ... It wasn't that way for us."
Opportunity will be the Heat's reward, as he went on to note. They can now avenge themselves against the Celtics, who have mocked Miami by tweet ("It's been a pleasure to bring my talents to South Beach," Paul Pierce posted after Boston's win in Miami in November) and by trick (when Rajon Rondo tried to invade their impromptu huddle in February).
This has the makings of an instant-hot rivalry. It may also be short-lived, based on the ages of Miami's upside and Boston's downside. But it goes deep into the past of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who have all been humbled by the Celtics in recent years. And don't forget the lingering passions of Heat president Pat Riley, who put this team together and whose early career was formed by the postseason fights between the '80s Celtics and his Lakers.
The Heat could glance at their roster and write off this postseason as a learning experience because the three stars are only now completing their first season together. In fact, they couldn't be hungrier. They can anticipate the backlash they'll receive if they don't win now -- and that's the least of their incentives. In the main, they want to overcome the Celtics while Boston is still in championship form.
Others have felt this way in earlier eras. The Lakers overcame a tradition of poor results to knock off Boston in the '80s, as did the Pistons, who in turn were beaten by the team they'd bullied -- Michael Jordan's Bulls. Think, too, about how much it meant for Kobe Bryant to vindicate himself and his franchise last year against Boston. James and Wade in particular don't want to spend the remainder of their careers hearing about how they were never able to prevail during Boston's window of contention.
James was downplaying this matchup, for a good reason: Even if Miami wins, two more rounds will wait ahead. "We always felt it would happen at some point," he said. "We'd have to play Boston and get through Boston to get to where we want to get."
But Miami coach Erik Spoelstra -- the protégé of Riley that he is -- embraced the moment. "This is a matchup that all of the fans will enjoy, and players on both sides will look forward to it," he said. "We understand where we are in this league and where the Celtics are. If we want to get to anywhere we want to go, we have to go through them.
"And it wouldn't be right if we didn't play them."
So which team is hungriest? Is it the Celtics, who never take tomorrow as granted and who are driven to make up for their Game 7 loss in the NBA Finals at Los Angeles last June? Wade will make the case that he has waited too long since he led Miami to the 2005-06 championship in his third NBA season.
"It seems like an eternity to think back to '06," he said. "I pull things from that, as in moments in games and understanding what it takes. But I don't look back too much in reference. It was a different time, different players, different moment. So I don't go back."
As James sat beside Wade, listening to his teammate talk about that championship, it must have provided a sense of motivation that is greater than any ambition to knock off the Celtics. Wade has something James lacks, and this is not a matter of jealousy -- or else they never would have joined together. It is about finishing what they started, recognizing what each of them gave up in order to try to win together, and making sure they make good on their potential with a postseason victory that would define them in a most positive way.
Joe Johnson, your offensive rebound in the final possession and 23 points overall in the Hawks' closeout Game 6 win at home Thursday showed the value of re-signing you last summer. There were -- and still are -- understandable complaints about your $124 million contract as a free agent, but your value was set by the market. Had the Hawks let you go to New York or elsewhere, they might have missed the playoffs altogether. Now you've taken them into the second round for a third straight year and, based on the opening-round success of the Pacers, you have to think you can compete with the Bulls. The health of Kirk Hinrich's strained hamstring will be crucial.
Mark Cuban, you have nothing to lose in this series. Who would think a "fragile" team like yours could upset the two-time champs in Phil Jackson's final year? So have at it. The more relaxed your players are, the better hope they'll have of scrambling the series and giving yourselves a chance -- and an entertaining chance you'll have if Dirk Nowitzki is exploiting mismatches as he can. This will be the first time in years your team will be a long-shot underdog, and that could help liberate your players.
Billy Hunter, as head of the NBA players' union, you appeared to gain leverage based on a judge's initial ruling that the NFL may not lock out the players after they've decertified their union. The potential difference between your situation and theirs is that the NFL is making money, while the NBA claims to be losing at least $300 million annually. If the NBA can prove its business is not profitable, will its circumstances result in a different interpretation by the legal system? While it's no sure thing for your side, the events of this week should help convince the owners to negotiate with you rather than count on outlasting you during an extended lockout. Good news for fans.
"It's an extremely awkward situation," said Messina. "On the one side -- some friends have helped me to realize this -- I've been lucky now to help to build another Final Four team, which is probably a great accomplishment. I feel honestly as a little bit that it is mine."
Indeed, Messina recruited the players and installed the offensive and defensive systems that Molin continues to employ. Messina quit in part because he was frustrated that his young players weren't focusing on the small daily steps of self-improvement, but he has seen signs that they've made those improvements for Molin.
"At the end of the day this was my decision," said Messina. "I am lucky enough that I never got fired [from a coaching job], and it was my decision to leave while the team was in a very good position in the standing. I wanted the young players to step up and take responsibility. With Lele, he's a very soft-speaking person, very calm, he knows how to maneuver a situation and he has a lot of experience. They felt they had to step up because there was nobody to blame if they did not succeed."
Messina and his family have been invited to attend the Final Four by Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu. He anticipates a wide-open event involving two of the great coaches in world basketball -- Zeljko Obradovic of the Greek club Panathinaikos, and American-born David Blatt of Maccabi Tel Aviv -- as well as 41-year-old Simone Pianigiani, who since 2006 has transformed Montepaschi Siena into a European power.
"It will be very interesting first of all because two teams that were potential candidates to win the championship are not in the Final Four," said Messina. "Barcelona and Olympiakos are out, and this is a major upset. You play a Final Four in Barcelona and the home team is not there."
Panathinaikos will take on Montepaschi in one semifinal next Friday. "Everybody has appointed Panathaikos as the logical favorite because of the experience of Obradovic and because they have the most experienced team," said Messina. "But I think they are facing a very, very dangerous team in Montepaschi. This is a team that has been to Final Four three times and has always lost in the semifinal, and this year they were never expected to be there -- especially after losing the first game [of the quarterfinal round] by almost 50 points (89-41) to Olympiakos."
Real Madrid will be the underdog against Maccabi, which will be without guard Doron Perkins after a recent season-ending knee injury.
"I feel Madrid is very dangerous," said Messina. "They have reached their goal and they now don't have too much pressure on them to win the Euroleague. Doron Perkins was the player who could have played against [Madrid guard] Sergio Llull -- Llull is very important, they need him to score 15 points minimum in order to win.
"On the other hand, Maccabi has [center Sofoklis, also known as "Baby Shaq"] Schortsanitis, who can create foul trouble for [Madrid center Ante] Tomic. But Real Madrid, even being so young, has been all season long able to play while trailing in the score, and those have been its best moments. The team has never given up, it has always fought for winning the game. Even if they have a lot of players with no experience in the Final Four, they have a shot and I would not be surprised if they make it."
But then Messina, in this case, has a rooting interest.