MIAMI — Long before the playoffs began, even before this season started, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics both suspected the same thing.
A postseason matchup was inevitable.
Sure enough, they were absolutely correct.
“It’s finally here,” Celtics forward Paul Pierce said.
Want drama? This Eastern Conference semifinal series will have it in bunches.
Miami’s Big 3 vs. Boston’s Big 3. Dwyane Wade getting a chance to end Boston’s season, after the Celtics knocked the Heat out in 2010′s opening round and sparked last summer’s whirlwind of Miami roster changes. LeBron James trying to avoid being eliminated by the Celtics for the third time in four years. Shaquille O’Neal potentially derailing the title hopes of a Heat franchise that he helped carry to the crown in 2006. Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett perhaps girding up for one more championship run.
“This is going to be a real series,” Celtics forward Glen Davis said Thursday. “I don’t think no laughing will be going on. … It’s going to be a fight.”
The best-of-seven starts Sunday in Miami.
They danced around the topic for days, neither the Heat nor the Celtics wanting to say they were hoping to face off in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and certainly not saying it before Miami finished off its first-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers.
No need for caution anymore. The matchup the Heat, the Celtics — and probably most of the NBA — wanted is going to happen.
“I think we always felt it would happen at some point,” James said. “We didn’t know if it was going to be first round, second round, Eastern Conference finals. But we always felt that at some point we would have to go through Boston and play Boston to get where we want to get. So it’s here now.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers echoed those sentiments.
“We assumed, when they put this team together, at some point that if we wanted to put another banner up that we were probably going to have to go through them,” Rivers said.
Boston won three of the four regular-season meetings, though only one wound up being decided by double digits — that being Miami’s 100-77 home win over the Celtics on April 10. Two of the matchups came in the season’s first two weeks, when the Heat were still in the earliest processes of jelling.
So it seems fitting — their seasons started against one another in Boston on Oct. 26, and in one case, will end against the other.
“This is what we came here for,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh, who’ll make his second-round debut in this series. “We’re still on our journey. And we know that we have a long way to go. And the reward is a battle with Boston. That’s going to be a long, long series. We have to start the process … and just keep our heads in it, start getting mentally prepared for them.”
For Wade, ousting Philadelphia on Wednesday and winning the first-round series in five games was particularly sweet.
The last time he won a playoff series was 2006, the NBA finals against Dallas, and he famously sat down in Boston’s arena last spring to vow that he would not be part of another first-round defeat “for a while.”
On that front, so far, so good. He and James shook hands Wednesday night when Wade recalled that story, Wade saying “Appreciate it,” and James responding with, “You’re welcome.”
Of course, just getting into the second round won’t suffice, either.
“As a player, it seems like an eternity to think back to ’06,” Wade said. “We’re in ’11 now. I pulled things from that, as in, moments in games and understanding what it takes, but I don’t really look back too much and reference too much from that. It’s a different time, different players, different moment.”
In Boston’s case, it’s mostly the same players — and a familiar moment.
Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Rajon Rondo were part of the Boston team that won a title in 2008 and nearly did it again in 2010, losing a road Game 7 to the Los Angeles Lakers in a memorable finals. They understand the stakes, and point to experience as a potential edge in this series.
“They’re the (higher) seed, so I don’t see them being the underdog,” Rivers said. “I don’t see us being the underdog. And I don’t care, honestly. It’s two good teams and let’s play.”
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.