Sun Sentinel


(TNS) —You know what hurts? It was five years ago the Miami Heat handed out a sheet of paper before a game with a Pat Riley quote that was the best official statement ever:


“Danny Ainge needs to shut the f—- up and manage his own team.”


Remember? This was to support then-Heat star LeBron James, who questioned the officiating against Chicago. Ainge, Boston’s general manager, threw himself into the discussion from afar and everyone had a good chuckle over Riley’s statement.


Five years later, no one in South Florida is chuckling. It’s Him versus Him in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s LeBron’s greatness against Ainge’s creation. It’s the best player of perhaps all-time taking on the best general manager certainly of this time.


And this is why it hurts: It’s a reminder as the Heat trudge through a down cycle of mediocrity of just how quickly you go from making a footprint to being a footnote in sports, of how fleeting the fun can be.


It’s also a reminder as the Eastern finals start Sunday of how hard it is to get back on top. These teams represent the two distinct ways to have a great run in sports.


The first way is to get a LeBron. Easy, right? The Heat had him for four great years. Since leaving, he has had four similarly great years in Cleveland. This would be his fourth consecutive NBA Finals trip in Cleveland to match his Heat run.


The fact he only has one ring in Cleveland has more to do with the team on the other side, Golden State, than any of his failings. Golden State could be at the front end of a dynastic run, if it can keep this all going.


Sometimes you don’t have to be a team to be a dynasty. LeBron is on the edge of eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances. He’s a dynasty. The two teams fortunate enough to have him were part of that.


Ainge showed the second way to win. He was front-office shrewd. He pulled off the NBA’s version of Jimmy Johnson’s Herschel Walker trade. Johnson stocked the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys with Super Bowl trophies from that trade.


Ainge traded aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for three first-round draft picks of the Brooklyn Nets. He parlayed his smarts and Brooklyn’s (and later Philadelphia’s) mistakes into Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier.


Ainge also hired a coach, Brad Stevens, from college.


He did enough good work that his two acquired stars, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, are hurt and Boston is one of four teams still standing.


Take the top two players off any other team in the league and they’re a lottery team. That’s speaks of Ainge’s work. That also shows just how hard it will be for the Heat coming up.


It’s not just that Boston crushed the same Philadelphia team that crushed the Heat this playoff spring. It’s that Boston is depleted by injury in a way that underlines their future. Tatum is 20. Brown, 21.


The NBA went ga-ga over Philadelphia’s manner to build a team through serial tanking. It got them two stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. They have a good future.


But the way to win big in the NBA still comes down to an astute front office. Philadelphia traded the chance at Tatum last draft to take Markelle Fultz with the top overall pick. Tatum is a star. Fultz barely played this year.


Then again, maybe Tatum doesn’t score 20-plus points in seven consecutive playoff games if he’s in Philadelphia. Organizations, you see, help make young stars, as Boston shows.


And unicorns makes organizations, as LeBron shows.


All of which leaves the Heat standing outside with their face pressed against the window. They’ve been on the inside enough to know that feeling. Now they’ve just got to shut up, manage their own team and watch Him play Him.


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