A Celtics-Nets Rivalry? Not so fast

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November 21, 1997
It's the time of year when rivalries dominate the news. Harvard-Yale. Michigan-Ohio State. Celtics-Nets.

Well, as Meat Loaf once lamented, two out of three ain't bad.

The Nets and Celtics, who met Wednesday in Jersey, are back at it again tonight in the FleetCenter. The first meeting of the season between these two wannabes was more than eventful in that it featured:

- The first ejection of the season for Rick Pitino. 

- The ejection of Antoine Walker for elbowing Chris Gatling.

- A huge discrepancy in free throws, with the Nets getting the advantage.

- An end to the Celtics' four-game winning streak with a 108-100 loss.

- A prediction by Nets coach John Calipari that tonight's game would be a "mud-slinging, old-fashioned, in-your-face, whack-you-as-much-as-I-can, all-out war for both organizations. I live for these games."

Can we just fast-forward to the Eastern Conference finals while we're at it and dispense with the small talk?

There actually are some commonalities between the Nets and Celtics which could lead to a rivalry in our lifetime - assuming, of course, that New Jersey has any fans who actually care. Calipari and Pitino are pistols-at-10-paces in the making, given that their paths have often intersected and they preach similar styles. Pitino turned down the Nets last year and then volunteered Coach Cal for the gig. Pitino also helped Calipari get the University of Massachusetts job (Rick is a UMass alum, lest we forget).

The two had some epic encounters in college, the biggies (read: NCAA) always going to Pitino and Kentucky. Now they are both Young Turks hoping to resurrect moribund programs - er, franchises - and getting well compensated for their efforts.

As for the teams, well, the Nets are still the Nets, which means they always find a way to implode. But they also have talented veterans, some promising kids, and an identity complex that is never going to go away while there's another team across the Hudson. So they look elsewhere.

Pitino is not buying into this us/them thing with the Nets and had some yuks over Calipari's Armageddonish buildup for the 12th game of the season.

"John gets carried away a little bit," Pitino said. "He's got to understand this is 82 games now. If he wants to create some rivalries in the figment of his imagination, let him do that. But there's no greater rivalry with them than there is with Philadelphia, New York, with Washington, who we haven't even played yet, or with anyone, for that matter. If he wants to get his guys fired up, so be it. But a lot of that is a figment of John's vivid imagination."

The Nets have won five straight from the Celtics and 10 of the last 14 meetings. That makes Coach Cal 5-0 against the team that briefly and halfheartedly courted him a couple of years back. In fact, theCeltics have accounted for almost one-sixth of Calipari's 32 victories as an NBA head coach. That doesn't sound like much of a rivalry to Pitino.

"A rivalry is created when two teams are competitive, established, when they're near the top," Pitino said. "It's not a rivalry when you're at the bottom. We certainly have a long way to go before we build any rivalries. Maybe he feels his team has arrived and the rivalry is going to be established with some teams in the league. We're not at that point yet. We want to be. But we're not there yet."
Walker heard from the NBA yesterday about his flagrant foul against Gatling. He already is $ 1,000 poorer - that's the minimum fine for a flagrant foul 2 - and it could be worse, depending on Rod Thorn's review. Walker wasn't any less repentant yesterday. "I never hit him. I got tossed for nothing. But I guess it was the elbow," he said. "He was faking a little bit. That's what he's supposed to do. It was a phantom call. But you got to live with it. It looked worse than what it really was." Pitino said he brought out the team's Zapruder tape to reveal there was no contact whatsoever. "Antoine turned - because the guy was crowding him, his elbow passed the man. We ran it in slow motion," Pitino said. "There was no contact on the play. Gatling did a very good job of acting that out. There was no brush at all, and Walker got thrown out of the game." Pitino said he thought Walker's misdeed was much less severe than Popeye Jones's takedown of Ron Mercer a week ago. That was initially ruled a flagrant foul 1, but Thorn, the NBA's disciplinarian, changed it to a flagrant 2 and fined Jones $ 10,000. "That's an awful big difference to me," Pitino said. Thorn was traveling yesterday (to Dallas for the A.C. Green Iron Man game), and the NBA, which reviews all flagrant fouls, may announce something today. It may not necessarily be bad news for Walker . . . Fouls, fouls, fouls. The Celticswere whistled for a season-high 37 against the Nets, which led to 56 Jersey free throws (the Nets missed an astounding 25). Boston, meanwhile, attempted only 25. "Both ways have to be consistent," the coach said. "That's what I had a problem with. It was touching at one end and physically throwing guys out at the other end. If you're going to let both teams play aggressive, play aggressive. If you're going to call it tight, call it tight both ways."

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