The wait is over. Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics get the regular season underway against rival LeBron James and the Miami Heat in a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday evening in Miami, Florida.
Boston and Miami both hit bumps along the road on their way to the conference finals a season ago. The Celtics stumbled out of the gate last season and were nearly out of the playoff picture by the All-Star break, but a furious second-half surge brought the team to the top of Atlantic Division and into the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the postseason. A lucky break came in the form of Derrick Rose's season ending injury, ending the Chicago Bulls' season in the first round of the playoffs. Boston took care of the Atlanta Hawks in six games in the opening round before outlasting the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games in the semifinals to set up a date with the Heat in the penultimate round.
Miami ousted the New York Knicks in five games to open its playoff slate but ran into a bit of a scare against the Indiana Pacers in the second round, but survived in six to advance to the conference finals against Boston.
In one of the best -- if not the best -- series of the postseason, the Celtics and Heat brawled in an epic seven game series, ultimately won by Miami. The Heat looked like the superior team in the first two games, despite a 44-point performance from Rajon Rondo in Game 2, and took a 2-0 lead back to Boston. In typical Celtics fashion, they fought tooth and nail to win the next three games.
With a chance to send the Heat home ringless for the second straight season, the Celtics laid an egg in Game 6, with LeBron James playing arguably his best postseason game ever, scoring 45 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. James and company left no doubt in Game 7, pulling away late to secure a 101-88 win.
Miami followed up those big wins with a Finals victory over the Thunder.
We wouldn't know this until several weeks later, but the loss didn't just end the Celtics' season in agonizing fashion: it also ended an era in Boston basketball.
Rumors swirled late in the regular season that Ray Allen, a valued member of the Celtics' famed Big Three and key player in the 2008 championship-winning season, was unhappy with his new role coming off the bench. Later we would find out that Allen also had a rift with Boston's prized young point guard, Rondo.
The signs were clear, and Allen decided that Boston was no longer right for him.
Celtics fans could understand his decision to move on, but what they had a very hard time coming to terms with (and many still haven't) was where Allen decided to sign. He could have gone out west and joined the Los Angeles Clippers. He could have signed with the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that nearly acquired him in a trade deadline deal. But he didn't. Instead, Allen joined forces with the Celtics' chief rival in the East: James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat.
In the build up to Tuesday's opener, we learned more about Allen's thought process in leaving. In essence, Allen was tired of constant trade rumors and didn't feel wanted by Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers and the Celtics. Along the way, Allen had some peculiar comments -- like how the Celtics front office forced him out by offering him a two year deal worth $12 million when Miami's offer was worth $3 million annually -- and damaged his good guy reputation.
Allen's strange remarks were talking points in Boston, but Rivers and the Celtics brushed them aside. They had, after all, done quite a good job of replacing the aging Allen. After bringing back Kevin Garnett on a three-year deal -- their number one priority -- Boston brought in guards Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa, re-upped bigs Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox and drafted Jared Sillinger, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph. They even added a defensive and rebounding specialist, former No. 2 pick Darko Milicic.
Boston's additions have many thinking that it has the deepest team in basketball, and that may not be a stretch. Ask anyone on that roster, and they'll turn even the biggest doubters into believers. Confidence is overflowing from the Celtics locker room, and they're ready to prove the naysayers wrong one more time.
Outside of Allen, the Heat didn't do much in free agency, only bringing in veteran Rashard Lewis. Undoubtedly, the Celtics have a much deeper team than the Heat, and that bodes well for the regular season. But in the playoffs, rotations are shorter, and the Heat's star trio (now quartet) of James, Wade, Chris Bosh and Allen will see more minutes, and that's a big plus for them.
Still, with the worst bench in basketball last season, the Celtics willed their way to a seven game series with the eventual NBA champion. Now, with a vastly improved bench and a rejuvenated core, who's to say that they can't do it again?
The long journey begins Tuesday night, and you better believe they'll be ready.
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