MIAMI — For Ray Allen, the renewal of the Boston-Miami rivalry must have been an out-of-body experience.
At certain surreal moments Tuesday night, he must have observed himself wearing a burning red basketball on his jersey instead of a green shamrock and wondered, “Where am I?”
He was the object of Kevin Garnett’s snarls rather than beneficiary.
He fed an assist to Chris Bosh, patted the shoulder of Dwyane Wade, started a fast break for LeBron James — aiding his former sworn enemies.
He was fouled by Paul Pierce, the mate who used to have his back in bruising battles against the Heat.
He watched the NBA championship banner-raising ceremony of the team that crushed his own championship aspirations.
What was he supposed to do in such a situation? Celebrate or congratulate?
Miami’s 120-107 victory over the Celtics in the season opener for both teams turned Allen’s emotions inside out. It was his first game in a Heat uniform, against the team to which he devoted five memorable years, on the very court where he played his final game as a Celtic, in a bitter Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference finals.
Allen insisted there was “nothing personal” about the latest chapter in what has become the NBA’s most interesting grudge soap opera. Once the ball goes up, the goal is clinically straightforward: Beat the opponent.
But of course Allen’s first encounter with the guys he shed blood, sweat and tears with must have been gut-twisting. He hadn’t communicated with them since his unhappy departure from Boston as a free agent during the offseason.
Just before he entered the game with 2:45 remaining in the first quarter, Allen dashed over to the Boston bench and went down the line, slapping palms.
“Those guys are my friends,” Allen said, emphasizing that he harbors no animosity for players with whom he won the 2008 NBA title. “We played five years together. I’m a native New Englander. I’ll always love Boston.
“I’ve said it time and time again: We’ve shared, in my opinion, and a lot of people will tell you, probably the most special thing that you can do in sports — going on to the top.”
Was he disappointed that Garnett didn’t acknowledge him when he approached the Boston bench?
“That’s just Kevin,” Allen said. “He had his head down, focused on the game.”
Allen, 37, the NBA’s all-time three-point leader, was a key acquisition for the Heat in its drive for a Heat-peat. Why not remove a thorn from your side and turn it into a weapon?
And Allen was effective, scoring 19 points in 31 minutes, getting to the free throw line eight times and sinking two three-pointers.
“They are two championship-caliber teams,” he said. “Defensive schemes are the same. It’s hard to tell the difference.”
But it was different. On Allen’s first attempt, he sank his signature three-pointer from the corner over Jason Terry, the guy the Celtics hired to replace him.
On a drive toward the lane, he was fouled sort of half-heartedly by Pierce, No. 34 swiping at No. 34. Allen swished both free throws.
He hit a difficult three over Courtney Lee, a leaning bank shot over Terry and a free throw following a technical foul on Rajon Rondo.
In the end, what mattered had nothing to do with nostalgia. The Heat had a resounding win to start their long quest for a second consecutive title, and Allen performed as well as a sixth man sub for Miami as he had as a starter for Boston.
The breakup of Boston’s Big 3 contrasts sharply with the all-for-one, one-for-all unity of the Heat’s Big 3.
During the Heat’s ring ceremony, Wade, once king of the Heat, was introduced as the penultimate player, leaving the loudest cheers for James, the new king of the basketball universe. Wade has graciously come to terms with his No. 2 role.
The ceremony must have brought back memories for Allen, who won his ring in 2008, as part of the Celtics’ grand alliance. They were the originals; the Heat, copycats.
Allen expected to win another couple of trophies with Garnett and Pierce, but they kept falling short, and the loss to Miami in Game 7 of June’s Eastern Conference finals after leading the series 3-2 was particularly painful for Allen. He played on a gimpy ankle throughout the playoffs, recording career lows in scoring and shooting accuracy. Meanwhile, Rondo the mad genius went wild — sometimes too wild — but his imaginative assists made Allen the forgotten man.
By then, well before then, Rondo had supplanted Allen as a member of Boston’s Big 3.
Allen was feeling marginalized, unappreciated. So hurt was Allen that he accepted less money to come to Miami. Juvenile, you might say, that Allen could not ice his bruised ego and get over it. Coach Doc Rivers and Allen’s ex-teammates are still miffed about what they perceive as his betrayal.
But Allen played it smart. Rather than stick around Boston and risk the ignominy of being used as trade bait, he was able to land a role with the league’s No. 1 contender. He believes he’s got something left for his 17th pro season. His first game against his old team provided proof. Rejection can be a powerful motivator.