- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
MIAMI -- Where's Don King when you need him?
Actually, the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic are doing just fine on their own stoking the flames of a simmering in-state rivalry that's reached inferno status entering Friday's showdown at AmericanAirlines Arena.
"Our personal relationships are great," Magic center Dwight Howard insists, despite rolling his eyes at every mention of the Heat during the offseason. "But when we step on the floor, we're not friends anymore. And we're trying to take their heads off."
Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? By a show of hands, who doesn't get the urge at least four times a year to decapitate a best friend?
Don't worry, Dwight. The Heat feel just as fondly about the Magic. Welcome to unconditional love in the Sunshine State, where the Heat and Magic are about as harmonious these days as Democrats and Republicans and have as much in common as South Beach and Downtown Disney.
But the teams share at least one vital thing in common, something that finally makes this rivalry meaningful not just geographically, but on the court. For the first time since the NBA planted two teams within 250 miles of one another in the bottom half of Florida, Orlando and Miami are championship contenders in the same season.
Now, Pat Riley's slick is matched by Stan Van Gundy's wit. Miami unveiled a new $400 million roster starring LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Orlando opened a new $400 million arena to give the franchise another boost toward a championship breakthrough.
Said Heat forward Udonis Haslem: "They got a team that's been good and is built pretty solid for the next four or five years, and we've got a team built to be the same way. It can definitely build up to that level of one of those fierce rivalries. Plus, when you add in some of the things that have been said back and forth this summer about LeBron, about us, it's there even more."
If this were a prizefight, you could trace the venom between the teams back to July 8. That would be the day Orlando president of basketball operations Otis Smith stepped onto the free-agency scale and weighed in on James' "Decision" to abandon Cleveland for Miami.
Smith hopped in line with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley among those who questioned James' competitiveness after the league's reigning two-time MVP bolted a title-contending team in Cleveland to latch onto the best team free-agency money could buy in Miami.
Smith thought James was "more of a competitor" than that. Then came the verbal sparring. Riley called Smith's comments "stupid" and criticized other front-office critics for sniping at the Heat. Then old scab wounds were peeled as Van Gundy entered the fray.
That would be the same Van Gundy who, five years ago, was escorted out of his job as head coach of the Heat the last time Miami had title aspirations. That 2005-06 Heat team proceeded under Riley to win a championship with Wade and Shaquille O'Neal.
That would be the same Shaq who once paraded through Miami-Dade County with the Larry O'Brien trophy that never made its way through Orange County in central Florida when O'Neal played his first four seasons with the Magic a decade earlier. Yes, the Heat and Magic have taken below-the-belt shots at one another since the late 1980s. But the temperature has never been this frigid.
There's a strong perception that even the coaches have maintained a frosty distance. Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra, groomed together as assistants under Riley in Miami, used to have playful food fights on the team plane when one grew tired of trying to convince the other of a point in a schematic debate.
Even after Van Gundy's departure -- and through the first two seasons of Spoelstra's coaching tenure with the Heat -- the two would text one another after games to offer support and advice. But amid the chilly summer between the teams, the back-and-forth banter essentially ceased. The two attended a Florida Marlins baseball game, and Van Gundy said they had dinner together in Chicago during the NBA coaches meetings in September. Otherwise, there's been little communication.
"I wouldn't read too much into when and how often we talk," Spoelstra said. "We're both totally focused on the job we have at hand."
Van Gundy agreed. "He's somebody that I worked very closely with, I like a great deal and have a lot of respect for. But that won't stop us from competing very hard against each other."
Spoelstra said the perception of controversy is stronger than the actual reality. But he's not bothered by the soap opera this matchup has become on and off the court.
"That only makes it more competitive," Spoelstra said. "We have respect for them and I'm sure they have respect for us. But I also anticipate some heated moments."
As if either side needs any more of those. Orlando has dominated the series in recent seasons, having won 15 of the past 20 against the Heat. Even the Heat's marquee newcomers haven't had much meaningful success against the Magic. Orlando got to the NBA Finals two seasons ago after dusting off Bosh's Toronto Raptors in the first round and James' Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
"They've gotten the better of us the past few years," Wade said. "But we feel like we've got a team good enough to get some of that back, and be right there with the Orlandos and Bostons."
Domestic unrest also ranks among the subplots. Wade is as close to Magic swingman Quentin Richardson as he is to anyone in the league. But Haslem, Wade's closest Heat teammate, took exception to Richardson's "[Expletive] the Heat, with all due respect" quote on his way out of town.
No, these teams don't really like one another. There's tolerance between them along the Florida Turnpike. But there's also too much at stake to temper the antagonism that exists. That tension only intensified last week, when an exhibition game between the teams in Tampa was canceled because of slippery court conditions.
"We're not competing against the Miami Heat," Howard said. "That's where people get it mixed up -- that we're trying to beat the Heat. They're not the only team in the league. If we just try to concentrate on beating the Heat, we'll lose focus on what our real goal is."
Wade, likewise, looks beyond the team on the other end of the Florida Turnpike for motivation. But that didn't stop him from anticipating Round 1 of the regular-season clash three months in advance. It was at that July 9 introductory media conference when Wade, James and Bosh sat behind a podium and strained to bite their tongues when asked about some of the critical shots about the hype surrounding the Heat.
"Man, they're going to make us come out of these suits [right now]," Wade said in July.
With the Dolphins, Jaguars and Buccaneers mired in NFL mediocrity, Miami, Florida and Florida State on the outside of the national championship picture in college football, and Major League Baseball a mere afterthought here, the Heat and Magic are the biggest stories in Florida sports.
There's nothing standing between the teams now.
Not time. Not talent. And Friday, hopefully, not even any trouble with a slippery court. Otherwise, the Heat and Magic just might have to settle this thing in the ring.
Again, just in case, where's Don King?
11hMatt Walks, ESPN.com