In a league where the games come in waves over the course of an 82-game schedule, including this opening run of three in four nights for the Miami Heat, rarely are there early-season nights that become standalone spectacles.
Friday night was supposed to be one of those nights, the Heat back on the court against the Boston Celtics for the first time since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, when one wayward bounce of a Jimmy Butler 3-point attempt sent the Celtics to the NBA Finals and the Heat off to a summer of lamenting what might have been.
And yet, as the teams return Friday to the national spotlight at FTX Arena, a single night has changed the narrative.
As in Wednesday night.
As in the season-opening 116-108 loss to the visiting shorthanded Chicago Bulls.
As in a game when the Heat were left to bemoan a defense that looked nothing like the whirlwind that helped lift them to the conference’s best record last season.
“Not really making it a personal matchup between them,” guard Tyler Herro said of a moment the Heat instead find themselves introspective. “We’re just worried about ourselves this early in the season. We’ll see them again in the playoffs at some point. So just worrying about ourselves, watching some film, and we’ll get better on defense.”
With Herro and point guard Kyle Lowry debilitated by injury by the end of last season’s playoff run, Friday stood as an opportunity for the Heat to present something closer to whole.
Instead, coach Erik Spoelstra exited Wednesday’s loss citing disintegrated defense.
“We have to get back to our identity defensively, for sure,” he said.
The Celtics, by contrast, opened their season with a resounding 126-117 statement victory Tuesday night over the visiting Philadelphia 76ers, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown each scoring 35 points.
That led Celtics President Brad Stevens to note on his weekly radio appearance, “Our best two players just look amazing. They came back ready to roll and it’s been pretty impressive. And following their lead in every which way, we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”
Even with coach Ime Udoka removed from his role after an offseason offcourt scandal.
Even with center Robert Williams receiving yet another round of treatment on his troublesome left knee.
Even with a bench lacking significant depth at the moment, to the point of calling upon Blake Griffin.
The Heat, by contrast, showed Wednesday they still are adjusting to the free-agency loss of starting power forward P.J. Tucker to the 76ers, as well as the lineup switch that has added the offense of Herro to the opening mix, perhaps at the price of defensive domination.
“We were just giving up crazy amounts of easy baskets and things we’ll have to clean up defensively, just to get back to our identity,” Spoelstra said of falling to a Bulls team lacking sidelined Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball.
“It’ll be good to have a film day and a teaching day. I think a good teaching session is probably appropriate right now.”
As could be expected from a veteran Heat roster, perspective carried the night in the wake of the loss to the Bulls.
“One game,” Lowry said. “So we’ve got guys that we need to get into a rhythm and get going a little bit.”
“We’re going to get better. We’re going to win the next one,” Butler said.
“First game, still different chemistry with those guys implementing me in the starting lineup,” said forward Caleb Martin, who is starting in place of Tucker. “So we’ll work on it. We’ll get it together.”
“It’s game one,” center Bam Adebayo said. “We’re going to watch film. That’s the thing about the season, 82 games.”
“We’re still trying to figure out things,” guard Max Strus said.
Not exactly the bravado befitting a rivalry game.
And, no, Heat-Celtics in mid October can’t replicate Heat-Celtics in late May.
But, still, perhaps the right opponent at the right time.
“Obviously it’s a sentimental game for a lot of us right now, just because the turnaround is so quick, playing them,” Martin said. “So obviously it’s going to bring back bad memories in terms of last season.
“They’re a great team and we’ll see how we line up with those guys. And obviously it’s always good to kind of get a rematch with some of the guys you’ve been wanting to play for a while now.”