MIAMI – Don’t count Dwyane Wade among those who believed the Celtics’ competitive tenure was coming to an end last June. While the horde of reporters surrounding him scoffed and giggled as he said the Celtics would continue with their current core for three more years, the expression on his face remained serious. He wasn’t joking or being overly laudatory.
And here we go, nearly five months later, the defending NBA champion Heat opening the season Tuesday against the not-so-ready-to-start-over Celtics at American Airlines Arena. The Heat are hardly surprised that their primary rival decided to retool instead of rebuild.
The Celtics spent the offseason adding younger pieces, watching Ray Allen defect to the South Beachers, and re-signing veterans with the express purpose of overcoming the Heat. The past two playoff eliminations at the hands of Miami have been painful for Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who has made it a point to call out the Heat as Boston’s lone target. He said it several times during training camp, and while he wouldn’t lament too much over an opening-night loss, especially when integrating eight newcomers, this is a game he wants.
The Heat fully understand they are the hunted, but team management decided to retain 12 of the 15 players from last season’s title team. The Heat are indeed similar to last season, but the additions of Allen and Rashard Lewis strengthen the bench.
“[The continuity] helps us,’’ Wade said. “This is what we needed. We needed our guys to come back and be healthy, and with everything we have it takes a special group to be able to play on this team. It’s not easy. Everyone has to sacrifice something in their game to be able to be successful, to get team success. So just anybody can’t come in here and put on the Heat uniform with this dynamic.’’
Like the Celtics, the Heat have established a pride and culture over the past few years, especially with the acquisitions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Wade said the difference in the atmosphere since the Big Three was put together is significant.
“Some of the previous years I was here, it was easier,’’ he said. “Even for me, it’s a hard thing to go through some nights, to be able to give what you have for the team, to play a role. So this is what we needed as a team, we didn’t need no one to come in here and break up our chemistry. We brought in guys that fit right into the mold. Some teams might have needed something different, they felt, but it all plays out and we’ll see.’’
There hasn’t been too much banter between the teams during the preseason. The Celtics realize they lost last season to Miami because their older players became fatigued, Allen was playing on one ankle, and their bench was offensively inept. With the addition of Jason Terry and the return of Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox, the Celtics’ second unit will be considerably stronger.
Personnel moves were geared to compete with the Heat, especially in the playoffs, when each side fully expects to see the other.
“I expected that, when I heard [that the Heat are the Celtics’ target] from Doc, I know Doc very well, as well it should be; our focus is on Boston,’’ Wade said. “But we do look at other teams. We’re not going to say we’re just looking at Boston. We understand this league is good. When you talk about focusing on the Eastern Conference, you focus on the champs in the Eastern Conference and that’s the Miami Heat. So that’s their message right there more so than them saying I’m not worried about no other team because you can’t beat us four times and lose to everybody else. You won’t make the playoffs.
“I understand what he was saying at that standpoint and we look forward to the challenge every year. Boston is always the team that’s going to make us point fingers [at each other] in the game sometimes. They mess with your mind a little bit. It’s a great challenge for us and by the time you get to the playoffs, we look forward to it. You have to be aware and focused on everything that they’re doing because they can beat you any given night.’’
There is a mutual respect, especially with Miami’s Big Three, for Rivers. He has orchestrated successful plans to stop Wade, James, and Bosh in previous years — individually — but he is still looking for the recipe to contain them as a group. Tuesday’s game, which will include several players new to the rivalry, should be fascinating because there will be new matchups, creating even more intrigue between the Celtics and Heat as the season progresses. You get the distinct feeling that the Heat’s core is glad the Celtics decided to hang around a little while longer.
“When you’ve got great players, no matter how old they are, you’re a great player,’’ Wade said. “KG [Kevin Garnett] is playing phenomenal, like he’s found a fountain of youth. Why break it up? You do the San Antonio [plan], you just add players around the great players. San Antonio has been very successful and it seems like Tim Duncan has been in the league 38 years. Why change that?
“Boston has kind of done the same thing. They felt they needed a facelift but they kept three of their core four to come back and still make another push at it. They’re just as good. It’s a different dynamic than having Ray [Allen] but they’ve got other guys that bring something different to the team that will be challenging.’’