Return of the Rivalry: Celtics versus Heat is a battle between the East’s best

From super-teams to rebuilds to title-contenders anew, the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat are rivals that are reflections of each other.

And so we meet again.

The Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat are set to duke it out for a spot in the 2020 NBA Finals. Back in 2012, these two teams were in a similar position, with South Beach’s finest prevailing in seven games.

It goes without saying that a lot has happened since then. And yet, the two franchises continue to be reflections of each other. The Celtics kicked off the modern run on super-teams, but it was arguably perfected by the Heat, who enabled superstars to band together and call the shots. The two sides then went through some leaner campaigns, rebuilding, and finding the right mix of personnel. That the result of their revamps has been to face off against each other anew is quite telling.

How exactly did the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat emerge as the toast of the East? And why are their fates seemingly entwined? Here’s a rundown of the two sides’ mutual beef:

Photo from Getty Images

BEANTOWN’S BOOM

Maybe this all would have been prevented had the Celtics just drafted Kevin Durant.

Prior to the 2007 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics had the second-worst record in the league, and looked poised to add either Greg Oden or Durant. Alas, the basketball gods intervened, and gave them the fifth overall selection, the worst possible outcome.

So instead, Boston GM Danny Ainge pivoted.

First, he took that No. 5 pick (Jeff Green), Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West, and shipped them to the Seattle Supersonics, in exchange for Ray Allen and the draft rights to Glen Davis. With the Celtics now featuring a one-two punch of Paul Pierce and Allen, that made Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett more open to the idea of a trade to Beantown, and so it went down. Boston sent away Ryan Gomes, Geralde Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair, and a future first-rounder for Garnett, giving them a modern “Big Three.”

A championship quickly followed.

In hindsight, it’s a bit of a disappointment that this trio only won a single title together, but such is the outcome when you roll the dice on a core of aging, veteran talent. Still, when the group was active, they were the toast of the Eastern Conference, even returning to the Finals once more in 2010, and coming to within a game of a second ring. Ainge did his best to surround the trio with cagey, ring-chasing vets, continually putting the Celtics in a position to compete.

The Celtics’ success in the late 2000s was a roadblock for two young stars: LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat. Unable to get past the Celtics, the duo decided to do something about it when both reached free agency in 2010 at the same time.

CELTIC CRUSHINGS

Boston versus LeBron James’ Cavaliers (2007-10)

  • Regular season: 6-6
  • Defeated the Cavs 4-3 in the East Semis (2008)
  • Defeated the Cabs 4-2 in the East Semis (2010)

Boston versus Dwyane Wade’s Heat (2007-10)

  • Regular season: 10-1
  • Defeated the Heat 4-1 in the East First Round (2010)
Photo from Getty Images

SOUTH BEACH SESSIONS

The 2007 Boston Celtics’ “Big Three” was brought together by the team’s management. The 2010 Miami Heat “Big Three” was brought together by the superstars that formed it.

James and Wade, along with Chris Bosh, decided to build on their friendship by playing together in South Beach. You know the drill by now: “Not one…not two…”

The duo felt that together, they could take down the Celtics, and end their reign on top of the East. They turned out to be correct. When the Heat and the Celtics met in 2011 East Semifinals, Miami prevailed in five games. A year later, they collided in the 2012 East Finals, this time with the Heat getting the edge in a series that went the distance.

The highlight of that series was James’ 45-point Game 6 performance, a showing that, in hindsight, saved the Heat as we know it. Trailing 3-2 with game six in Boston, “The King” went all-out to force a game seven, which they wound up winning in Miami. That helped them advance to the Finals, where they won their first of back-to-back championships.

That actually turned out to be the last time (until now!) that Boston and Miami would meet in the Playoffs. But to further rub it in on the Celtics, the Heat signed away one of their Big Three, Ray Allen, in the summer of 2012. Allen would go on to have a pivotal role in getting James and co. their second championship as a unit.

Photo from Getty Images

ALL GOOD THINGS…

The 2013-14 NBA season was a turning point for the Celtics.

During the offseason, the team allowed coach Doc Rivers to depart for the LA Clippers. The team then traded a package headlined by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets, in exchange for a bonanza of first-round picks.

As for the Heat, they made the NBA Finals anew in 2014, but lost to the San Antonio Spurs. The succeeding offseason was then their turn to close a chapter in their history book, as LeBron James opted to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, leaving behind Wade and Bosh in Miami.

With gaping holes in their respective rosters, the Celtics and Heat rivalry was officially on hold.

It was a period of rebuilding for both teams, with strikingly different approaches.

The Celtics sat pretty on a motherlode of draft picks. Like a poker player, Ainge did his best to manage his assets, waiting for the right disgruntled superstar to pounce on. That didn’t mean he was just sitting on his hands though.

Prior to the 2015 trade deadline, the Celtics took part in a three-team deal with the Detroit Pistons and the Phoenix Suns that saw them wind up with point guard Isaiah Thomas. The team had in December of 2014 dealt away Rajon Rondo, and so Thomas was given the keys to the car. The brash, undersized floor general shined as a Celtic, getting Boston back into the Playoffs in 2015, and then towing them to the Conference Finals in 2017.

Thomas’ run as a Celtic did not last though, as Ainge finally used his Brooklyn assets in a trade, landing Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2017. It was a spectacular offseason for the Celtics, as they also traded down from the No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 Draft for the No. 3 pick with the Philadelphia 76ers, and signed free agent swingman Gordon Hayward.

The Celtics, it seemed, were back in contention.

The Heat’s approach was different.

The team’s president, Pat Riley, was loath to go into a full rebuild, and instead tried to keep things competitive with Wade and Bosh as his centerpieces. In 2015, the Heat still looked like they could make noise in the East, a position that was bolstered by a trade for Phoenix point guard Goran Dragic. Instead, Bosh was pushed to the sidelines, and later to retirement, by blood clots. The Wade-Dragic combo was not enough, and Miami missed out on the postseason.

The 2015-16 Heat campaign saw them go with experience, as they added Amar’e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson. Together with diamond-in-the-rough center Hassan Whiteside, Miami reached the East Semifinals, but lost in seven games to the Toronto Raptors.

The next offseason, Dwyane Wade opted to leave Miami, a seismic shift in the franchise’s stability. Still refusing to tear things down, the Heat instead handed out deals to the likes of James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, and Dion Waiters. The rag-tag group was slow to gel, starting the season 11-30, but rebounded to end things on a 30-11 run, finishing just shy of a postseason seat.

Wade would return to the Heat via trade in 2018, and his comeback helped Miami make the Playoffs, where they lost in five to the 76ers. They were unable to repeat the feat in 2018-19 though, in Wade’s swan song season.

IT’S THE CLIMB

Celtics 2013-19

  • Regular season: 270-222
  • Missed playoffs once, lost in East First Round twice, lost in East Semis once, lost in East Finals twice

Heat 2014-19

  • Regular season: 209-201
  • Missed Playoffs three times, lost in East First Round once, lost in East Semis once
Photo from USA Today

DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK

Entering the 2019-20 season, it was fair to say that the Boston Celtics lost more on paper than they had gained.

The team parted ways with Irving, plus rotation players Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, and Terry Rozier, due to free agency. They filled their point guard spot with another All-Star, Kemba Walker, and added veteran big Enes Kanter, but to really compete, the team would need lots of internal growth.

They got exactly that.

The team’s Killer J’s, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, blossomed this past season, with both posting new career-bests in points, rebounds, and assists. Combined with the trademark toughness of Marcus Smart, and a better fit with Walker running the show, the Celtics swept the 76ers in round one, then edged the defending champion Toronto Raptors in the East semis in seven games.

On the flipside, the Heat moved past Wade’s retirement by signing a player who seemed like the embodiment of their culture, Jimmy Butler.

The tough-as-nails, workout-craving Butler gave the Heat a leader in crunchtime, but the team was also bolstered by some of their young guys. Second-year big Bam Adebayo saw his do-it-all game recognized as he was named an All-Star. Undrafted guard Kendrick Nunn was an early season sensation, while 2019 13th overall choice Tyler Herro has flourished in the bubble.

Perhaps the Heat’s masterstroke move came prior to the trade deadline, when they exchanged declining players James Johnson and Dion Waiters in a multi-team deal that saw them bring back defense-first forwards Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. By being able to throw onto the court so many shutdown-minded wings, the Heat looked to be a tough out in the postseason.

They actually turned out to be that and more. After sweeping the Indiana Pacers in round one, the Heat ruthlessly dispatched the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and last season’s MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Heat pulled it off by walling off the paint on defense, and scorching the nets with three-point shooting on offense, recalling the way they played when James and Heatles were still around.

That leads us to where we are now, the advent of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals. In three meetings this season, the Celtics have a slight edge, 2-1, though the Heat’s win came in August, when basketball had returned from the COIVD-19 pause.

In a way, it seems apt that the Celtics and Heat clash anew. After their dizzying heights lording it over the East, the two squads turned thoughtful in their approach to rebuilding. Through canny drafting and smart signings, they’ve managed to get within four games of a return ticket to the Finals. Only two questions remain however: which side will prevail, and will we see these two teams butt heads anew next season and beyond?

BONUS QUESTION:

Will Pat Riley tell Danny Ainge to shut the f— up again?