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On Wednesday, the Chicago Bulls ended the Miami Heat’s franchise-record winning streak at 27 games with a 101-97 win, a game in which LeBron James recorded 32 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks. James, however, was not about to graciously accept the end of the second-longest win streak in NBA history, instead choosing to go off on the officials. In his postgame comments, he focused on two hard fouls by Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson that he felt shoud have been called flagrant.
“Those are not basketball plays,” James said. “And it’s been happening all year. I’ve been able to keep my cool and tell [Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra], Let’s not worry about it too much. But it is getting to me a little bit.” James was himself correctly issued a flagrant after running into Carlos Boozer late in the game.
The following day, Celtics president Danny Ainge was asked about James’s comments during an interview with WEEI’s Salk & Holley and, after saying that the referees made the right calls, added, “I think that it’s almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating.”
That’s when the fun began.
James’s response to those comments was low-key, saying simply, “I’m not surprised about anything that comes from Boston,” according to Ethan J. Skolnick of The Palm Beach Post.
The reaction from Ainge’s Heat counterpart, Pat Riley, on the other hand, was not nearly as moderate. While he didn’t address the media himself, he sent a team spokesman to deliver a short message:
“Danny Ainge needs to shut the f— up and manage his own team. He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing and I know that because I coached against him.”
Finally, on Friday Ainge, tongue firmly in cheek, spoke with The Boston Globe‘s Gary Washburn, saying, “We’re both right. LeBron should stop complaining and I should manage my own team.”
The two executives have been rivals since the ’80s, as Ainge was drafted by the Celtics in 1981, the same year that Riley took over as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. The two teams met in the Finals three times in that decade, with the Celtics winning in 1984 and the Lakers doing so in ’85 and ’87 (Ainge was also part of Boston’s ’86 championship team, which defeated the Houston Rockets in the final). Later, Riley coached the Heat from 1995 to 2003 and again from ’05 through ’08 before becoming team president. Ainge has been at the helm of the Celtics’ basketball operations since 2003.
During the first three seasons of Boston’s new Big Three era, the C’s repeatedly beat up on both the Heat and James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, eliminating both teams in the 2010 Playoffs. That shared frustration with the Celtics’ dominance of the Eastern Conference was viewed by many as a major reason why James decided to join Dwyane Wade in Miami before the 2010-11 season.
It’s ironic, of course, that James should complain about officiating, considering NBA refs’ tendency to favor the league’s biggest superstars. James notoriously went six consecutive games in December without being whistled for a single personal foul. In fact, he hasn’t fouled out once this season, and has been assessed more than three personals in a game just three times, despite playing 38.3 minutes per game. His 511 free throw attempts rank sixth in the league.
As for Riley’s seemingly out-of-character outburst, it could well be that the Heat president is making a point of publicly supporting his star, knowing that James could opt out of his current contract as recently as 2014. In any case, it’s hard to think of a precedent for an executive sending a messenger to drop f-bombs for him. And it’s hard not to chuckle at how Ainge, known for getting under opponents’ skin during his playing days, so effortlessly managed to infuriate Riley, just as if it were the ’80s again.
Congratulations, Danny. You’ve still got it.