“It”s the first game of the year. Nothing’s a statement at this point. It’s Game 1,” Kevin Garnett said after a recent practice. “You want to establish home. You want to play well. You want to continue to do the things you’ve been doing, and I think for us, for the most part, it’s sharing the ball, moving the ball, [developing] good chemistry. We just got to continue to ride that wave.”
Shaquille O’Neal, who won a title with Dwyane Wade and the Heat in 2006, also downplayed the significance of the matchup.
“I’ve been around for a long time, and the focus is on the winning the last game,” Shaq said. “I focus on the big picture. When I’m looking at my artwork, I’m always looking at the big pictures, the Picassos. The one that y’all have to go through the thumb fingerprint security to look at. I never worry about the little photographs. I’m always worried about the big pictures.”
Hoh-hum. No statement game here — just 10 guys on a court aiming to get win No. 1.
Recent history says otherwise. Flash back to Oct. 27, 2009, Boston’s season opener at Cleveland. The C’s gutted out a 95-89 win over a revamped Cavaliers squad (including the addition of Shaq). Paul Pierce pulled down an uncharacteristic 11 rebounds. Ray Allen played an insane 42 minutes. KG blocked three shots.
With those efforts, Boston sent a message: We still rule the roost in the East. Seven months later, they torched Cleveland in just six games in the conference finals — a loss that likely led LeBron James to The Decision.
Two years before that during the Celts’ title season, they dropped the Lakers twice during the regular season by an average differential of 16 points. Pierce and Garnett went off the handle in both, posting more points and far more minutes than their averages. By the time the NBA Finals rolled around, it was more of the same. Boston dispatched of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in six games, taking the deciding tilt by an embarrassing 39 points.
The players, in other words, can talk these statement games down all they want. But the truth is, they play harder in them precisely because they matter — both logistically (homecourt advantage in the postseason) and from the standpoint of momentum and intimidation.
True, much can change between game No. 1 of the regular season and the playoffs. Wade or Pierce could get injured. KG’s knee could regress. And the Orlando Magic, when all’s said and done, will undoubtedly have something to say about the Eastern Conference title.
But Tuesday night is about delivering a message: For the Heat, its the notion that their stars are simply talented enough to out-run and out-score everybody else, regardless of a lack of depth. For the Celtics? Their Big Three are fully healthy again and backed by a new-and-improved supporting cast.
The outcome will establish a pecking order — one that will help decide (along with the remaining three matchups the two teams have throughout the season) who possesses homecourt advantage and, much more important, the mental edge heading into the 2011 playoffs.
This is not just another game. And the players, for all their logical talk, are just as aware of that as the rest of us.