The NBA's upcoming playoffs got a lot more interesting last weekend -- thanks to one heated and acrimonious game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics.
"We don't like them," LeBron James said after the game. "They don't like us."
It showed on Easter Sunday, as the teams played a game that featured way more trash-talking than your typical Easter-basket game as the regular season winds down. James and Celtics star Kevin Garnett were both in the middle of a few discussions. So was Boston reserve Tony Allen, who curiously charged at James during a late timeout after James had lit up the Celtics for 20 fourth-quarter points.
Allen was exulting that James had missed a wide-open three with four seconds left that could have won the game. James' reaction? To stand in Boston's huddle and jaw with Allen and the rest of the Celtics.
"I thought it should have been a tech," Boston coach Doc Rivers said.
As the teams walked off the court, Garnett was yelling James' way. James responded by flicking the back of his hand behind his ear as he walked away. These were clearly not the signs and gestures of two teams "just competing."
Rivers surmised the animosity came from the Celtics winning Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals two years ago. James did not disagree.
"It comes from a tough seven-game series that we had," James said. "It comes from them wanting to be really great, them winning the championship, us wanting to win the championship and having to come through Boston to try to win it.
"The regular-season battles that we have had, the battles between me and Paul (Pierce). The competition."
After the game, James and Pierce got into a heated argument in the hallway on their way to the locker rooms. Former Cavs coach Paul Silas got his guy out of there, the rest of the Celtics took Pierce away. The two made amends, and had some classic games -- including one in 2006 when Pierce had 50 points and James 43 in a double-overtime win.
But recent events have intensified the feelings. Included:
-- Garnett basically looking at James and telling him to shut up as James coached his teammates while they lined up for a free throw late in a 2007 regular-season overtime Cavs win. Garnett's yapping was visible, but after the game he scratched his chin and said, "Talking? I wasn't talking to anyone."
-- Throughout the game James and Pierce were yapping at each other, often as the two went up and down the court.
-- Later that season James was asked if the Celtics talked more than most teams. "Yeah," he said with a laugh. "They're up there." What's up with you and Pierce? "We're just two competitors," he said.
-- When the teams met in the playoffs, Celtics fans took off on James for what they perceived as excessive drama when James was hit on his way to the basket. James was booed soundly after he went to the floor after being hit by Sam Cassell. The next day he bent back his lip to show a cut and said: "I'm going to have to have my eye poked out for people to believe I'm getting hit."
-- The Celtics were heavily favored, but the series went seven games. It featured what probably was James' most ferocious dunk -- he went past three Celtics on his way to the basket and slammed the ball with such force in Garnett's face that physicists determined how much force he was using. Boston called timeout after the play, and as they sat at their bench the dunk was shown over and over and over on the video board.
-- The series ended with an epic Game 7 in Boston, when James scored 45 points and Pierce 41. Boston won and when the game ended, James turned and strode right off the court without even acknowledging the Celtics. This was his first post-playoff loss walkoff, preceding his walkoff in Orlando by a year.
-- As he walked off the folks in the new Boston Garden played the Bee Gees and showed "Gino" shimmying to the music on the big screen. This was Boston's way to celebrate each win, and it went up when the game was secured.
-- The NBA decided to have the Cavs open the next season in Boston, and prior to the game the Celtics celebrated their title of the previous season by having former Celtics greats give the present captain the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Pierce wept as he hugged the trophy. Where were the Cavs? Back in their locker room. They had walked off, unwilling to watch and uninterested in seeing Boston celebrate.
-- When the Cavs returned to start the game, the Celtics had given Pierce the microphone. He was supposed to give a brief pep talk to the fans, but a brief talk turned into a 15-minute monologue in which he thanked anyone and everyone who had helped him in his life. The Cavs stared blankly at Pierce's soliloquy.
-- In April 2009, Boston visited Cleveland. The Celtics had nothing to play for, having sewn up the No. 2 seed. Garnett was back in Boston with a bad knee. The Cavs blew Boston out, winning by 31 and celebrating in every way possible on the bench. This was not unusual; Cleveland had a rollicking regular season that it and its fans completely enjoyed.
-- During the game, Anderson Varejao and Ray Allen got tied up trying to rebound a free throw. Varejao flung Allen to the ground, and Allen responded with an elbow to the ... well ... to the spot an elbow is not supposed to go. "Maybe he doesn't like my hair," Varejao said. Allen was suspended for a game. Varejao was given a technical.
-- When James made a three right in front of Boston's bench, Tony Allen reached out to James and said something. James talked right back. Late in the game, the Cavs' bench celebrated like it was New Year's when Wally Szczerbiak blocked a layup. Fans loved it. The Celtics didn't.
-- As the game wound down, the Cavs' starters rested. During a timeout, the folks in Quicken Loans Arena played their version of Gino, Rick Astley's "Rick Roll" song. As "Never Gonna Give You Up" blared, James, Mo Williams and Delonte West danced to the song while sitting on the bench. "I'm always going to remember that," Allen said. After the game, James said if anyone didn't like it, they could do something about it on the court.
Now, this season Tony Allen has gotten in James' face and James and Garnett jawed throughout the final minute of a heated game.
None of these incidents would seem to make for animosity. But they sure reveal the enmity.
"The competition, that's what's good about this game," James said. "I think this game has lost a little bit of that in the years, all the talking, teams not liking each other. That's the same thing I kind of figured out last year when I walked off the court in Orlando. People were mad I didn't shake hands. Why should I be happy? Why should I be happy? I'm not happy; I'm disgusted that I lost.
"That's what this game has lost. It's lost what it had in the '80s and early '90s where teams really didn't like each other."
Boston is the East's fourth seed heading into the final six games of the season, one game behind Atlanta. The Celtics close against the Knicks, Raptors, Wizards, Bulls and Bucks (minus Andrew Bogut) twice. Atlanta has Charlotte, Detroit, Toronto, Washington, Milwaukee and Cleveland.
It's conceivable the Celtics could overtake Atlanta for the third seed, but at this point you kind of hope they don't. Because if Boston finishes as the fourth seed the Cavs and Celtics would be headed for a second-round matchup. Anyone not like that idea?