The perception of sports rivalries has changed greatly over the years; during which free agency has become more prevalent and salaries more exorbitant. Given the influx of player movement and the establishment of hundreds of millionaires each season, the genuine dislike for opponents has waned. As players moved on to other teams, many of those they despised had now become teammates and with it dimishing the potential of long-seeded hatred for one another. All of these activities over the years have watered down the strong distain teams have for one another and the intensity of sports rivalries along with it.
In Boston sports there are still instances where rivalries remain, although the intensity of them pales in comparison to years gone by. The Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins each have long-standing rivalries with historic division foes (New York Yankees, Montreal Canadiens), but the physicality and outright hatred is still lacking. For the Boston Celtics over the years, there has always been one team that they continuously measured themselves against; the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite each team's standing each season, the Celtics would view their season success based on whether they were victorious against their west coast rival.
Unfortunately for each team's fans and league fans in general, Los Angeles and Boston traditionally play only twice over the course of an 82-game season. When the teams do square off, there is now more of a respectful dislike than an intense distain as it once was in the 1980s, when players like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would do everything in their power to defeat one other. Likewise the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers also have shared a historic rivalry that is a shadow of it's former self; when players like Russell and Chamberlain manned the interior during the 1960s and Bird and Dr. J attacked each other with wreckless abandon 20 years later.
Today there is a new rivalry that is beginning to grow between two NBA powers; the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. As the intensity of each team's distain for the other builds, it is the roles of individual players at the center of the rivalry that has elevated this rivalry to a unique level. Players from Miami like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Ray Allen all have personal issues with their foes from Boston. Likewise on the Celtics, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo each have a genuine dislike for their conference rivals.
Prior to arriving in Miami LeBron James was no stranger to Boston, as his Cleveland Cavaliers' teams were twice eliminated by the Celtics; raising questions throughout the league whether James had the character and makeup of a championship-caliber player.
During the summer of 2010, the aforementioned LeBron James joined Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to establish Miami's own Big Three; citing the Boston Celtics' model as the blueprint of a championship plan. With Wade and James both experiencing the bitter taste of defeat at the hands of the Celtics, Miami entered the 2010-11 season with one goal in mind; defeat Boston and advance to the finals.
Fans need not look too far back to see the development of this rivalry. In Game 2 of their 2010 second round playoff match-up, where a sideline altercation between Garnett and Wade cleared both benches and increased the intensity of that game and those subsequent to it. That series' victory by the Celtics propelled them through the playoffs and into a finals rematch against the Lakers, while Dwayne Wade and the Heat were sent into an offseason that would lead to joining of forces with James; changing the future of their franchise forever.
During the playoff matchup between the old and new Big Three, the building rivalry was dealt added fuel as an entanglement between Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo resulted in a series-impacting dislocated elbow to the Celtics' point guard; that turned an expected close into a less competitive affair. The incident was viewed by Celtics players and fans as a deliberate attempt on the part of Wade to injure Rondo, while the Heat saw it as an accidental occurrence that was overblown by Boston.
After the Celtics surrendered the final two games of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals series to Miami, the team was dealt a dose of salt to their playoff wounds as Boston's Big Three contributor Ray Allen defected to South Beach; and along the way had parting shots for the way he interacted with teammate Rajon Rondo to how his role changed under head coach Doc Rivers. While most players and coaches respectfully deflected the criticism, Kevin Garnett took a moment to inform the media that he no longer has Ray Allen's phone number and is not looking for it; setting the tone that his former teammate's departure was not taken lightly.
During the offseason, the Boston Celtics looked to build a team that was more athletic and versatile to counter the talent of the reigning NBA champions. In training camp, Rivers has been extremely vocal relative to how the Celtics' season ended last season; creating a very large target on the Heat as the team they must beat. In so doing, Rivers has looked to build even more distain for the Heat in order to keep his team focused on the task at hand. Through it all the team has tried to be respectful in interviews, but the hints laid down by Boston suggest that they are hell bent on beating Miami; and that their season would be judged as a failure if they do not accomplish that goal.
It is only fitting that the 2012-13 NBA season kicks off with a rematch between these two teams. While the Heat is favored by many to return to the NBA finals, the Celtics view their window of opportunity for another title not yet closed. With their playoff disappointment from last season and the events of this offseason, there is no reason to believe that each game played between the two teams will be hotly contested, intense affairs that will physically and mentally challenge both squads.
In the end, the true beneficiaries of the Celtics-Heat rivalry are the NBA fans. Like seasons past, where players and fans equally had hated for their opponent, the atmosphere that will exist each time these two teams face off this season will be played equally as if it were a Game 7 situation. Even fans on the periphery will take notice when these teams play one another as the events of recent seasons have set the stage for an old school rivalry in a new generation game. The end result will be a level of competitiveness in these games that will make for a great storyline throughout the season and beyond.
Scott Duhaime is a passionate fan of the Boston Celtics and avid follower of the NBA for over 30 years; weathering the highs and lows of past seasons and witnessing five of Boston's 17 championships; with more to come.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @scott_duhaime