The Celtics have a commanding 3-2 lead on the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. Normally, 3-2 leads aren’t commanding, but the home team in this series has won each game by a comfortable margin, and Game 7 is in Boston. They say a series doesn’t start until somebody wins a road game, and I’m worried that they’ll have to put an asterisk on this series because it won’t have started even after it’s already ended.
Hypothetically, the Celtics should be one of the cooler sports stories in recent memory. They’re led by a rookie, Jayson Tatum, and a squad of young stars few thought could be pivotal pieces of a conference championship run, and they’re facing an all-time great, LeBron James, who has been to the NBA Finals seven years in a row. And, oh yeah—the Celtics are without their two biggest stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries. We’ve got a cast of young guns overcoming obstacles to beat a dominant future Hall of Famer! The ingredients are there for sports legend. And yet, almost everything about the possibility the Celtics win this series depresses me.
Part of it is because it feels less like the Celtics are winning and more like the Cavaliers are losing. Wednesday night, Boston shot a dismal 36.5 percent from the field but won by 13. The dysfunction has run high in Cleveland all season, and Boston just seems like it’s exploiting that dysfunction. The Celtics’ best defensive strategy is often letting Cleveland run the plays it’s trying to run, which results in dudes like Jordan Clarkson (10-for-32 on the series) or J.R. Smith (9-for-39) taking exactly the shots they want to take. “Oh no!” Marcus Morris is probably being coached to yell. “We’ve left George Hill wide open! I hope he doesn’t shoot!”
LeBron’s teammates are in the midst of a terrible series, and James simply isn’t good enough to prop them up. He looks tired, having led the NBA in minutes at the age of 33 in an attempt to carry this roster to glory. This isn’t an excuse for LeBron, who honestly should be good enough to beat an inexperienced, depleted roster without significant help. It’s just upsetting to watch a player working as hard as James realize he doesn’t have enough.
Part of it is because, in spite of the Cavaliers’ problems, it still feels like they’d be the better matchup in a Finals series. The Rockets and Warriors both seem significantly better than either Eastern team. But while LeBron is faltering under the weight of a shoddy roster, we’ve seen him work postseason miracles before. He came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the 73-win Warriors two years ago. Any team with LeBron on it seems like it has a fighting chance against any opponent. And as exciting as the Celtics have been—indeed, they’ve answered every challenge thrown at them this postseason—how can we view them as anything but fatally doomed against the Rockets or Warriors?
There barely even seem to be stakes for a Celtics Finals appearance. There will be some mild disappointment, knowing that perhaps they could have competed if Irving and Hayward were healthy. But even with a loss, the Celtics are well ahead of schedule. James would be fighting for his legacy in the Finals against either team as he looks to put the final notches in a Hall of Fame belt. If a rookie-led squad of youngsters loses in the Finals to heavy favorites, it’s not a disappointment. It’s a photo you can put in the scrapbook with “Baby’s First Finals Appearance” Sharpie’d on.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s imagine the Celtics were to beat the Warriors. It would undoubtedly be one of the most surprising Finals results of all time. It’s the stuff they make movies out of—an upstart squad that had so many reasons to give up, but whose players discovered new talents and soared to new heights to take down a dynasty. There’s just one problem: We’re not talking about some scrappy, overlooked, underdog franchise. We’re talking about the Boston freaking Celtics. It’d be like Major League, except instead of making it about the Cleveland Indians, the filmmakers didn’t do any research and wrote the exact same script about the Yankees.
And now we get into the real reason it’s hard for me to root for the Celtics. They’re from Boston. You realize how hard it’s going to be to come into work every day after the Celtics win one of the most improbable championships of all time when my boss is Bill Simmons? Jesus. I’ll quit, I swear.