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Posted: Thursday January 8, 2009 9:41PM; Updated: Friday January 9, 2009 12:34PM
Chris Mannix Chris Mannix >
INSIDE THE NBA

Burgeoning Celtics-Cavaliers rivalry has the potential to become heated

Story Highlights

Cavs' Ben Wallace said new rivalry isn't quite yet what it could become

Celtics took down Cavs in seven games in 2008 playoff series

Cavaliers downplaying the significance of Friday night's matchup

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Wallace.jpg
Cleveland forward Ben Wallace (right) has seen his share of heated rivalries.
AP

CLEVELAND -- Ben Wallace knows a little something about rivalries.

Earlier this decade, the Cavaliers power forward was a key player in one of the NBA's most heated dramas between Wallace's Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers. For years both teams engaged in physical battles, beginning with four or five inter-division games in the regular season and then in '04 and '05 for the right to advance in the playoffs.

Words were exchanged. Coaches too. In 2003 former Pistons coach Rick Carlisle moved from the Pistons to the Pacers bench, adding even more fuel to the fire. Games were physical as both teams possessed a healthy respect and an even healthier dislike for one another. The rivalry reached its apex in 2004, when a cheap shot by Pacers forward Ron Artest to the back of Wallace's head incited an on-court altercation that led to a full blown melee that spilled into the stands after an unruly Pistons fan hit Artest with a full beer.

Pistons-Pacers, says Wallace, was a rivalry.

Cavs-Celtics?

Not yet.

"Not even close," said Wallace with a laugh. "Not even close yet. Give it another year or so and I think it could have the potential to get [to the Pistons-Pacers level]. It's not the same. For one, our styles of play [in Detroit and Indiana] were a lot alike. We knew all of their plays and they knew all of ours. Especially when Rick Carlisle went over there; then we ran all of their plays and they ran all of ours. It was a little bit personal. It made for great basketball."

Still, while Cleveland and Boston may have to battle a few more years before a true rivalry can emerge, no one is denying the seeds of one are there. Both teams have superstar perimeter players -- LeBron James and Paul Pierce -- who look forward to the individual matchup. In Game 7 of last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, James and Pierce were like a pair of gunslingers, with James (45 points) winning the individual battle but Pierce (41 points) winning the game.

Both teams are physical. When the Cavaliers and Celtics resume their burgeoning rivalry Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena, expect bodies to be flying. Wallace and Cavs forward Anderson Varejao are no strangers to contact and Celtics center Kendrick Perkins seems to prefer it.

And make no mistake, both teams are developing distaste for one another. Watch Kevin Garnett's face every time James barks at an official: His eyes roll, the curses spill out of his mouth and the glare could burn a hole through concrete. There's no love lost there.

"We're competitors," James said. "When you have that type of competitive nature and no one wants to lose, the game can look a little more intense sometimes and it can look like you don't care for that person across from you."

On Thursday, the Cavaliers did their part to downplay the significance of Friday night's matchup.

"Some people may say it, but I don't look like this as a statement game," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "Would it be a good win? Yeah. Would we feel good about it? Yeah. They are the NBA champs. But if they win tomorrow, what do they get? Media attention? A pat on the back? If we win tomorrow? Media attention? A pat on the back?

"Believe me, I want to win. But if we go 4-0 against Boston and 0-4 against Charlotte, what does that accomplish? I want to win because that's our next game. Yeah, there is more to it [but] it's our next game. Every win helps us toward home-court advantage. But if we were playing Portland tomorrow, I'd want to beat Portland as much as I want to beat Boston."

Sure, Mike. We believe you.

Unfortunately, while Friday night's contest could be significant as far as which team will secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, neither Boston nor Cleveland will be playing at full strength. The Cavaliers will be without starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is out until next month with a bone chip in his left ankle. The Celtics, who aren't exactly storming into Ohio after losing six of their last eight games, will be without reserve guard Tony Allen, who is expected to miss the game with an ankle injury. And Garnett has, according to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "soreness all over his body."

The Cavaliers, however, will be interested to see how far the team has come since losing in Boston on opening night.

"We're a little bit more settled on our rotations," Brown said. "There is a comfort level now, not just among the players, but between the coaching staff and the players and vice versa."

"We know this is just not another game for us," James said. "We're much better defensively and offensively. I think we're a better team."

 
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