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What Heat-Celtics means to the Celtics

Apr 30, 2011, 7:19 PM EDT

Boston Celtics v Orlando Magic, Game 5 Getty Images

“How dare they?

I mean, really, how dare they?”

That’s the attitude the Boston Celtics have had about the Miami Heat since the introduction of LeBron JamesChris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with the smoke and the dancing and the pomp and the circumstance last July at AmericanAirlines Arena. Many neutral observers have taken up the Celtics as the hero in this little tale because they had a similar response.

How dare the Heat act so brazenly arrogant. How could they act with an air of victory without context, without results, without any semblance of humility? People want to identify with the Celtics as the counter to that kind of superiority complex. What they don’t really acknowledge is the reality of what the Celtics are actually saying:

“How dare they?! That’s our thing!”

There is no more arrogant team in the NBA than the Boston Celtics. Do not confuse this for criticism. The Celtics have converted an outright, ominipresent self-belief into the motor that propels them. They get to the defensive position before their opponent because they’re better at defense than anyone else. They get the loose ball because they want it more than their opponent. They hit the big shot because they know, with abject certainty, that they are the best damn basketball team on the planet.

Regular-season losses? Who cares? This team plays for June.

Lost the Finals? Yeah, but that was without Kendrick Perkins (guess we’ll never know how that one would have worked out). When not handcuffed, they can still claim superiority. And that drives them.

The Heat? The Heat are impostors to the greatness the Celtics feel they have earned with a championship in 2008 and, well … that’s it.

That’s all they’ve got. Which is way more than the Heat have done, but it’s also three years ago. This series? This is the first real step in the Celtics reclaiming their sense that the title is their destiny. The past two years have been foiled by injury, first Kevin Garnett‘s, then Perkins. Whether those injuries simply revealed a greater weakness at the systemic or mental level will never be known, and it’s not really relevant. All that matters is that the Celtics believe that they were the victims of misfortune and not the work of greater teams. That confidence breeds what drives them in this series against the Heat. Indignation.

This series should not be “the biggest series, ever” or “the real Finals.” This Celtics core has played in 13 NBA Finals games. This Heat team has played in five NBA playoff games. The Celtics want to, need to make the point that the Heat are not in their league. They’re a fine team to watch on the highlights, but they don’t understand the sacrifice and dedication the Celtics have shown to be champions.

It goes further than that, though. It goes further than LeBron’s laughing and dancing, further than Wade’s commercials and fashion (though Wade has the most cred of any individual on the Heat, borne out of the ring he earned in 2006), further than Bosh’s ridiculous position as a legitimate superstar power forward in the NBA. The Celtics may be arrogant, but a thread of that cloth is connected to the hair shirt that comes with playing for the team with the most history in the league.

The Celtics have a keen awareness of what greatness is. They see it in the halls of the building, in the organization they play for. Red Auerbach’s victory cigar. Bill Russell, the original NBA legend. Larry Bird, and John Havlicek and Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish.

The Heat have no such connection. They have Michael Jordan’s jersey hanging in the rafters, for crying out loud. So for them to want to reach up and touch the gates of heaven? The Celtics take umbrage. You have to earn it. And if you haven’t, you had best not hold yourself up as worthy.

This series is about the Celtics proving they’re not too old. That they’re not crippled by the same chemistry that made them special in 2008, that Perkins was a brother, but he is not the family. It’s about protecting the legacy and vision of Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers, who brought them together and convinced them of a plan that was more than just “let’s all get together and throw a neat introduction and sell some T-shirts and win a title.”

It’s about defending the principles they believe to be self-evident, that defense wins championships, not highlight reels, and that the Boston Celtics defend better than anyone else. They want it more. They will do what it takes. They are great because of their play, not because of their brands.

This Celtics team is arrogant. But they are arrogant because they are good, and they are good because they are arrogant. That relationship is what makes them great.

The Lakers? That’s a series about rivalry and history, about respect, and about competing at the highest level. This series?

For the Boston Celtics, this series is about anger. The Miami Heat have dared to step on their floor.

The Celtics want to show them what that means.

Game 1 is Sunday.

(For what this means to the Heat, click here.)

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