The Celtics tip off their regular season on Tuesday night against a Miami Heat team that's been rebuilt around two superstar players — LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Two of the most recognizable names in the game have come together to bring a championship banner back to South Beach.
Oh, and there's also that third guy.
Despite his five All-Star appearances and his Toronto Raptors franchise record of 10,275 career points, Chris Bosh becomes an easily overlooked piece of the Miami puzzle. He may be one of the bigger stars in the game, but he's not at the elite level of his two teammates.
He'll begin his Heat career against a team that knows all about that "third option" dynamic.
"It's like Ray Allen," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Bosh's role in Miami. "If you've got Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on your team, you're probably going to go to them a lot first. Then he's the third guy. He may get lost with you guys, but he doesn't get lost with us. I can guarantee you that."
It's a natural comparison. The Celtics are led by Garnett, a former MVP, and Pierce, a Finals MVP. The Heat are led by LeBron, back-to-back MVPs and counting, and Wade, who singlehandedly destroyed the 2006 Finals. And then there's the third guy — Allen, the nine-time All-Star closing in on the NBA's all-time 3-pointers record, and Bosh.
Whether you're talking about NBA superteams or 1980s sitcoms, the truism holds — three's a crowd.
"It's interesting," Allen said. "Because in the video game we used to play, NBA Jam, it was always two-on-two. You just got two of the team's best players. I think the model in the NBA, for the longest time, was having two great players on the team that were offensively two of the best in the league. But over the last couple of years, teams are starting that third guy, somebody that they can rely on."
The "third guy" trend has been in motion for a while. It may have started in the mid-1990s, with Dennis Rodman joining Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago to win three rings. But we've seen countless other stars shine in the No. 3 role this past decade — Glen Rice in L.A., Tony Parker in San Antonio, Shawn Marion in Phoenix.
But when your third option is a legitimate star like Allen or Bosh, it's a whole new ballgame.
"With that third guy, if you've got an All-Star player, then somebody's got to take a secondary role that's going to allow those other two guys to shine," Allen explained. "You've definitely got to have that understanding. You can't come in thinking that it's going to be your show. Some nights, you might score — maybe even two or three nights in a row. But typically, there has to be a model set up where somebody's going to have the ball and be the primary scorer. I think we've done a great job of that. Between myself and Kevin, it doesn't matter who scores."
The Celtics are unique case, because they were built around three superstars in their early thirties, all of whom made the choice to set aside their egos as their championship window closed. With their personalities and with their urgency to win a title before opportunity passed, the Celtics had no problem getting Allen to buy into the "third guy" role. It worked from day one.
For Bosh and the Heat, day one is Tuesday.
If Bosh and Allen play well enough, we might be heading toward a new era.
"It's got to be three-on-three now," Allen said of the old video game. "That's what we're gravitating toward."
Actually, it already is.
The game's way ahead of you, Ray. These days, that "third guy" is more important than ever.