The tension between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers bubbled threateningly beneath the surface throughout much of the first half in last Wednesday's preseason finale at Ohio State. A distinct air of dislike between the two squads suspended itself in the air and served as the basis for what ultimately ended up being an unusually competitive and enticing 24 minutes of preseason basketball.
Then, directly after the halftime buzzer blared, Shelden Williams apparently took exception to a Mo Williams elbow and responded by shoving the Cleveland guard to the floor - bursting the tension bubble in the process. Just like a disillusioned tribe from Survivor, these two teams could only hold their frustrations in for so long. In retrospect, it will appropriately go down as nothing more than an isolated incident. Both players were restrained by teammates and the squads proceeded to their locker rooms for halftime.
While the action itself was fortunately not overly malicious, it addressed something of a concern between these two teams. Based on the way Paul Pierce and LeBron James were scowling at one another, the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers appear not to like one another all that much. And that's perfectly fine by me.Is it fair to say the Celtics and Cavaliers have established a rivalry? Realistically, rivalries are born and raised in the postseason, and seeing as the two teams have really only met in one meaningful playoff series this decade (the 2008 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals), it's tough to label their relationship as a rivalry. Right now, with both squads expected and poised to fight for Eastern Conference supremacy, it is easy to label them as rivals. But realistically, Orlando - Cleveland could count as a rivalry, or Los Angeles (Lakers) - San Antonio or even Orlando - Los Angeles could all fit into the definition as it stands today.
But of all the teams in the league, the Celtics and Cavs have the potential this season to re-write how we define the word 'rivalry'. If last Wednesday, which arguably felt like a regular season game for 24 of the 48 minutes, is any indication, then Tuesday and the other three times these two teams meet this season could be serving as a filling appetizer for the postseason. And out of that competitiveness could potentially come a rivalry.
These days, the NBA seems to want to promote 'healthy' rivalries. They are the ones that involve the league's most substantial teams, but at the same time, those units are expected to uphold specific standards of clean play. There appears to be no more room in the NBA for the ferocious and unrestrained rivalries of the 1980s and early 1990s that epitomized the term "competitive" and helped restore the league to prominence. David Stern appears to want a league cleaner than a Danny Tanner kitchen.
In today's NBA, what we take to be meaningful on the court wars typically result in one team narrowly escaping the other, followed by the players of both teams breaking out in wide toothed grins, dishing out high fives, fist pounds and man hugs. It's as if the last two and a half hours did not actually just occur and for those of us still seething from the heat of battle, it's something of a shot to the gut when we realize that it might not have actually mattered all that much to the players - to the ones actually doing the fighting. Sure, the game itself might be intense, but any discourse or disappointment on either side is expected to be wiped clean the second the final buzzer sounds and the cameras and film teams flood the floor.
This is why such a frenzy occurred after LeBron refused to shake the hands of the Orlando Magic players in last summer's ECF. But in reality, what's wrong with what LeBron did? His team, favored to win the title for much of the playoffs, was just ousted, effectively minimizing LeBron's regular season MVP award, as well as spawning more talks of, "What will it take for LeBron to make it in the playoffs?" Mo Williams just missed roughly every three-pointer he attempted and LeBron is expected to go and chest bump Olympic mate Dwight Howard with glee? LeBron's a competitor and all he did was walk off the court when the buzzer went off. He did not curse out anyone, toss innocent spectators aside or even remove his jersey. He just walked off the floor. Think about how much ridicule was sent his way because of it.
I missed out on the the '80s and early '90s, but from what I've seen of the Celtics - Lakers games on ESPN Classic, when both teams retreated to the locker rooms down the same tunnel and Boston went one way and LA went another, there were no flattering exchanges between the guys. Kevin McHale wasn't high fiving Kurt Rambis in congratulation. Robert Parish was not man hugging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in elation for Kareem's accomplishment. There was none of that. There were only two teams who really wanted to beat the other and there was a winner and a loser.
The Celtics and Cavaliers can help restore that mindset this season. These two teams appear to legitimately dislike one another. They want to demolish each other. They want to exploit one another. They want to embarrass each other. We want them to scratch, claw, sweat and bleed when they're fighting during the game and we want the scowls and the looks of retribution and revenge on the losing squad's faces when the game is over. There do not and should not be any well wishes or high fives or positive interaction between these two teams when the game ends. The winner should be ecstatic and the loser should be enraged and that should be the end of it. Until the next time they meet.
That same sense of struggle between the two squads is effectively embodied by Pierce and James as individual competitors. There was distaste brewing between these two last Wednesday and it stems for that epic showdown in Game 7 of the ECF two seasons ago, when Pierce proved he was every bit as tenacious as James, especially when the spotlight was on him. The Celtics obviously went on to defeat Kobe Bryant and the Lakers and Pierce enjoyed some long overdue press that summer that highlighted how talented he actually was. But that appreciation died as quickly as it came when last season began and ever since then, Pierce appears to have a vendetta against anyone the league deems superior - especially James. Each meeting with him this year (all will be seen on national television) will serve as an opportunity for Pierce to restate why he should be mentioned along with the best in the business.
This could be a return to the glory days when rivalries actually counted for something and we reveled in the fact that our team was involved in one. It takes what would have ended up being a competitive game regardless, and transforms it into a national event, when promotional commercials are run two weeks prior and the catchy slogans are created. It would give us legitimate reason to really dislike an opposing team and not just because of the name, but because the Cavs will have become a team we want to knock off so badly and when we don't, it tears us apart and eats at us for days and weeks, until the build up of the next meeting overcomes the stinging of the result of the last one.
The tension resides between the two teams, but in my estimation, we're stuck on the fence. Do we jump one way and engage in a hostile rivalry this season, or do we leap the other way and try and make nice and show appreciation for one another? I say we go for hostile, but that does not mean I want violence between the two teams. I'm not promoting fighting or anything associated with it. I'm merely advocating a competitive mindframe between the teams, because I sat entranced Wednesday night, completely enveloped in the action. It was enthralling, captivating and it made me want more of it. And I'd be willing to bet some mutual, non-violent, legitimate competitiveness could be good for the league today.
Maybe the two teams don't even have a choice. Between Pierce, Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Kendrick Perkins, LeBron, Shaquille O'Neal and Anderson Varejao, the potential is there. The tenacity is there. The personalities for a rivalry are there. Both teams also face distinct pressures this season. For the Celtics, many are saying this season is one of the last chances this group has of winning another title. For the Cavs, LeBron now supposedly has the help he needs to win the ring. So with both teams capable and worthy, who is it going to be? It will take a rivalry to find out.