Dwyane Wade finished with 38 points, the Miami Heat looked like everything we'd imagined this past summer, while Paul Pierce got himself ejected, and the rest of the Boston Celtics looked old, tired, and overwhelmed. So, yeah: Game 1 was fine.
But I couldn't help but feel a little cheated. It should have more than fine. By all indications, this should be a series for the ages. It passes every test. Multiple superstars in their prime? (check.) Bad blood? (check.) Great storylines? (check.) Historical significance? For LeBron James, check. For the Celtics dynasty trying to make one, last run? Check.
It's my generation's answer to those epic battles from the '80s and '90s, when superpowers collided and messages were sent and mind games were played and the fans savored every second.
But Game 1 didn't quite measure up to the billing. Every time it looked like emotions would boil over, there was a whistle coming from out of nowhere to settle everyone down.
Which begs the question: Why, exactly, do we want to settle everyone down?
I don't want to be the guy throwing popcorn at the TV yelling for more violence, but Sunday's game got a little out of hand in the other direction. There's a difference between keeping a game in control and robbing a game of what makes it appealing in the first place. I'm talking about that ejection, obviously, when Paul Pierce got into Dwyane Wade's face and referee Ed Malloy immediately jumped on the situation, giving Pierce his second technical of the game, and sending him to the locker room.
The look on Pierce's face was classic.
A perfect combination of disgust and disbelief. Half rolling his eyes, and half protesting. Which sort of nailed how most NBA fans feel about the whole thing. Malloy was wrong on multiple levels.
First of all, you don't hand out a second technical for profanity, especially after Dwyane Wade had lowered his shoulder into Pierce and instigated the whole thing. Hence the disgust. But second, and more importantly, is that really grounds for ejection from a playoff game in 2011? That's where the disbelief comes into play. Have we really become that sensitive?
In a game that was otherwise pretty one-sided and uninteresting, that moment with Pierce was the closest we got to seeing why everyone had been so excited about this series to begin with. The Celtics may not have the talent to contend with Miami, but they're not scared; and watching Miami respond to the Celtics' mind games will be just as fascinating as whatever happens on the court. Again, it's a throwback to an era that a whole generation of NBA fans missed out on.
Back when psychological warfare was more than just two coaches using the media to manipulate officiating. When hard fouls could swing the momentum in a series. When players like Michael Jordan had to fight through brutal Detroit defenses on their way to the top of the mountain. For a whole generation, hearing about this alternate NBA universe is one, big tease.
It's like when that cool uncle sits you down to tell you stories of all those crazy parties he and his friends had in college. Back when people showed up to orientation and everyone gathered around a free keg in an open field and made friends and smoked pot and broke the rules without a care in the world. "One night we even stole a cop car," he tells you. "Parked it on the Dean's lawn and took off running!"
That's the way college should be. But because of a few cases where the worst case scenario became reality, most colleges have tightened up the rules over the past few decades, and the experience is almost unrecognizable to someone like your cool uncle.
It's not to say it's "bad" now, but... Definitely not the same.
That's the NBA these days. This isn't new, but because of a few cases where NBA games got truly out of hand, the league's more careful now. Watching the Heat and Celtics Sunday, it felt like one of those games where everyone was ready to bust loose, except... they all stopped short.
There were no hard fouls, not much trash talk, and for most of the afternoon, it looked like David Stern had personally addressed both teams telling them to be on their best behavior.
Then Paul Pierce had the audacity to show a little bit of emotion toward the end, and Ed Malloy overreacted like an insecure campus cop. I'm not saying it's proof the NBA needs to go back to community kegs and stealing cop cars and open-court clotheslines, but there's middle ground.
The Celtics and Heat won't play many games that are aesthetically brilliant. Because of the way these teams match up, most of their games will be brutal, where someone like Wade or Ray Allen shines, but everyone else plays themselves to a stalemate. It'll be a war of attrition that sounds a lot better in ten years than it looks right now. So, exactly like those NBA wars from the '80s and '90s.
The good ole days always sound better than they actually were. But the one thing those old NBA wars had was raw emotion. Hate that fans could taste through their television. And that's what's in play with Miami and Boston over the next two weeks. The best part of this whole series comes down to raw emotion, and who channels it to their advantage best.
They may not produce a whole bunch of beautiful basketball, but watching Miami and Boston bark back and forth and hit each other in the mouth (literally, figuratively, psychologically) is what could make the series great in spite of the chippiness. It'll be great because of the chippiness.
If we want to watch the beautiful, free-flowing games, Lakers-Mavs or Thunder-Grizzlies will do just fine. We're watching Heat-Celtics to see something else. I mean, Delonte West (allegedly) slept with LeBron's mom, for God's sake. It's not like this bad blood is imagined.
The NBA playoffs have been better than ever so far, and the Celtics and Heat could give us a series that ranks right up there with everything else we romanticize from the playoffs' past. They have the superstars, the storylines, the stakes, and most of all, the hate. The stage is set for something special. Now, can the NBA please get out of the way?