Superstardom fatigues the NBA even as it makes the NBA money this time of year. Boredom enters gently. We know what we know. Kevin Durant and his jumper. Draymond Green and his techs. Steve Kerr and his nonchalance. Mike D’Antoni and his outrage. James Harden and his Eurostep. LeBron James doing everything. Enter into this math equation the Boston Celtics with their coach who looks like a grad student instructor and a group of players who couldn’t vote for Obama in 2008, too young. This is the first time on the big stage where the Baby Celtics are the most compelling and intriguing story. They are producing when all eyes are on them, even as they still are a mystery.
The Celtics were in the Eastern Conference Finals last year facing LeBron James. Jayson Tatum was not. He was preparing for the NBA combine, anticipating the draft. Jaylen Brown averaged 9 points on 20% from three in the ECF and Terry Rozier was a mediocre 5 points a game here and there. One year later, all three have matured, developed, and with Tatum and tough guy Marcus Smart, plus Al Horford playing the best basketball of his career, they are leading the King of All Things (LeBron James). They are two wins away from the NBA Finals.
Like one of those kites you used to fly when you were a kid, the more wind the higher the kite soared in the air, the Celtics have thrived all season when they had the most against them. A lot is made of their age and not knowing any better but I think it is the opposite. They know too much. They know what it feels like to have LeBron James wrath pick them apart. They know the other side of toughness. They know how easy it is to collapse and fold, vulnerable to the talents of proven players. They know how to get out worked and out hustled. They know how to mismanage expectations.
Last year, they had one player they leaned on in the fourth quarter, Isaiah Thomas. They had a savior. NBA history has proven that saviors carry teams to titles. But the 2018 Celtics playoff team is disproving a NBA truth. You don’t need that one guy. Often that one guy has the effect of making everyone nonchalant, a little lazy and accountability poor.
This iteration of the Celtics is not just next man up but it is next man does everything. It’s what Wizards star Bradley Beal once said about a John Wall-less Wizards. Everyone eats. In this short period without a superstar, everyone on the Celtics are eating.
Chris Rock famously quipped we are a nation of C students. It was one of those jokes that was funny in the moment but searingly true and a little sad in the aftermath, as if many of us have underachieved. Most of us will never be great the way LeBron James is or Steph Curry is or Kevin Durant is. Our collective response is to put aside our own mediocrity and root for what is never possible for us; we didn’t get the athlete gene or the talent in basketball gene or the height gene.
We know the Celtics more than we know the Cavs. We know not being taken seriously. We know the toll of being unproven. We know up against all odds. The adversity of the Celtics is familiar to the ups and downs of living when you have to sidestep homeless men in the street. The Celtics are not glamorous, not yet. They are not iconic, not yet. They are not perfect, not yet. Outside of Boston, they are not beloved. But what they are doing is an amazing accomplishment of endurance, willfulness, toughness and talent. They aren’t scrubs out there but they still are strangers to this kind of excellence.
Rooting for them, even for Celtics haters, is easy because it is less about the green and more about the concept. The NBA has a Cinderella. They have a fairy tale story. They have their little engine that could. They have their dream.
Many of us have always wondered can a team that plays like a team and has players that have offensive and defensive skill, that are very good but are not great, that are underdogs, that play like they are going to die the next day if they don’t win, that care, that believe, can they beat the LeBron James God 4 times out of 7.
If the Celtics win this Cavs series, why can’t they finish the race, run the last lap? Remember when Larry Bird said, “if I want to have fun I’d play with LeBron. If I want to win I’d play with Kobe”?
How about a remix. If I want to have fun I’d join the Warriors. If I want to win I’d play for the Celtics.