The Miami Heat come to Boston on Friday, hoping to spoil the Celtics’ home opener in the next chapter of this storied rivalry. Except this actually isn’t a rivalry at all.
Sure, the Celtics and the Heat have played each other in three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals, with the eventual victor losing to the Western Conference champion each time. The ESPN broadcast will surely craft a highlight reel of great moments from this “rivalry,” but that’s just not the case.
Close your eyes, take 4-5 deep breaths, and ask the deepest recesses of your soul this question: is this actually a rivalry? I did, and my answer is no.
On paper, this is a healthy, FDA-approved rivalry. They’ve crossed swords at the highest level, have a history of hating one another, and even mixed in some personal beef between Danny Ainge and Pat Riley before the former headed to Utah to escape the trenches of this war. It’s all there… except it just doesn’t feel like one.
To me, there are two ways to qualify for true rivalry status, one ancient and one modern. The former requires immense pent-up sports hatred between two cities, usually born of generations of clashes across multiple eras. These types of rivalries can be traced from great player to great player, like how Celtics-Lakers has seen Jerry West vs. Bill Russell, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant vs. Paul Pierce — all icons of the franchises going head-to-head.
This type of rivalry just won’t work for Celtics-Heat. The Heat are too new a franchise to span multiple generations, and the relatively short history of the team just hasn’t lined up with the Celtics.
The Pierce-KG squad came a little too early to challenge the LeBron-era Heat, and even LeBron was a transplant. The 2020-2023 stretch saw the ascension of Tatum and Brown, but neither are quite franchise icons yet. Jimmy Butler had been around the block before coming to Miami, so he doesn’t move the rivalry needle either.
The second type of rivalry finds two teams—unbothered by each other historically—running side by side over a period of several years, constantly tracking each other’s movements and remaining at roughly the same competitive level. Whenever they play is must-see TV, and you always feel like something ridiculous is about to happen.
Celtics-Heat just doesn’t fit this bill either. They’ve tended to run into each other a lot, but they haven’t been running at the same speed. The 2020 bubble matchup saw a work-in-progress Celtics team face off against a coherent and professional Heat squad, with the Celtics bigs utterly unable to handle Bam Adebayo.
In 2022, the Heat felt like a much smaller fish to fry than the Milwaukee Bucks, whom the Celtics had just battled in the second round. They turned out to be plenty difficult to wrestle in the deep fryer, but it just didn’t feel like the main event of the playoffs.
And then there was 2023, when the Heat were counted out and then some, given a 3 percent chance to beat the Celtics by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. The Heat were awful the entire year, but even the series itself felt unceremonious. Rather than being a rivalry, it was a plague hospital. Let me explain.
During last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, I discovered a highly infectious disease that was causing the Miami Heat to consistently defeat superior opponents. The official name is Miami Heat Induced Shell Shock, but the kids call it M.H.I.S.S. The Celtics came down hard with it, and turned what could have been a rivalry-cementing series into a mess of diseased basketball.
If you made the mistake of blinking, the Celtics were suddenly down 3-0 to some M.H.I.S.S-assisted wizardry and all looked lost. The entire NBA world started writing obituaries, and I started wondering what the meaning of life was. It was barely competitive.
But then the C’s found the antidote and managed to claw a winner-take-all Game 7 out of the depths of defeat. Act two of the series went much like act one, albeit with some bananas Derrick White heroics to tie the series up.
But when all bets were off, the Heat prevailed cleanly. Game 7 was a total anticlimax, with the Celtics unable to hit threes and Jayson Tatum unable to walk. Both teams fired a single barrage of shells at each other, and the series fizzled out unspectacularly. Is that really a rivalry?
The other problem for the Heat is the 76ers. It’s pretty hard to have more than one rival, and with how many times the Celtics butt heads, the 76ers are definitely their current rivals. Both the Celtics and 76ers have great players along similar timelines and have roughly followed the same track of competitiveness since about 2017 when Ainge traded the #1 pick to Philly and drafted Tatum anyway. Combined with the passion of Boston and Philly fans, this just feels more real.
I just don’t think Celtics-Heat is there yet. In Boston, we take our rivals very seriously. The Red Sox have the Yankees, and no one else comes close. You could argue the Patriots have their whole division, but it would be hard to narrow down. The Bruins might have the Canadians, with a modern sprinkling of the Maple Leafs.
As for the Celtics, the Lakers take the cake historically, with the 76ers holding the belt now. The Heat could totally get there, but it’s going to take a more parallel path through the season to make it happen.
All in all, Friday’s game will be another installment of playing a team that annoys me, but it’s not a rival. Not yet.