The Celtics bounced the Raptors from the playoffs Friday night, and will now advance to their third Eastern Conference Finals of the Brad Stevens era. It was a good series, this seven-game clash with the defending champs. The Celtics are younger and a smidge deeper than the Raptors, both in terms of rotation depth and high-end talent, and though they won Game 7 by just five points, they led for all but one of the game’s final 28 or so minutes, and by as many as 10 points down the stretch. Good people reflexively recoil and possibly do some light gagging at the thought of the Boston Celtics playing for a chance at a Finals berth without LeBron James around to spike them back into hell. Good people then realize that Boston’s opponent this time is the Miami Heat, led by Jimmy Butler, the Lord King of all cheesebutts, and blast their half-digested breakfast sando all over their morning paper. Not like this, they say, chewed egg hanging from their chin, as they feel 2020 reaching once again for their matrix plug. Not like this.
Impossible to come to grips with the fact that only further calamity could keep the Celtics and Jimmy Butler out of these NBA Finals, that we have reached a point of such global vulnerability that the meteor you have long prayed to as a failsafe deity against just these sorts of no-win situations cannot help you without also finally plunging the planet into a real Fury Road type of deal. The West is ablaze. Images out of California are unimaginably frightening. The pandemic is still raging. Democracy is on the brink. No one even looked up from the trough when a hurricane devastated a broad chunk of the Gulf Coast. Point is, rooting for a violent cosmic intervention to prevent a basketball outcome would be, for the first time ever, excessive. We are stuck with whatever this hell series produces. James Ass is going to the NBA Finals. If he does not, it will be because the team of innumerable Tommies from Quincy did the vanquishing. Difficult to handle, emotionally, right now.
And it’s worth observing that Mr. Ass, for as appealing as the Heat otherwise are and for as cool as his new shaggy facial hair is, has been in full cheesebutt mode through these playoffs. You, a desperate fool, will point to his pristine 48 percent shooting and miraculous 50 percent clip from beyond the arc; I, a prune, will counter that an incredible 41 percent of his points across nine playoff games have come from the foul line. He has attempted 18 three-pointers against a nauseating 96 free throws. Only the dreaded James Harden has attempted more from the line, and Harden has played two more games and 87 more minutes. Observers will also note that Butler’s turnovers are way up in these playoffs, to an uncharacteristic 4.6 per 100 possessions, in no small part because when he has been unable to draw a whistle on one of his cynical drives into the paint, his fallback move has been to just fling the ball wherever and then scold a referee. Defenses are more disciplined in the playoffs, and Ass is more committed to foul-drawing than ever, and his turnovers and my bleeding eyeballs are what happens. The thought of him bringing his whole deal to the NBA Finals is more than any sane person can bear.
The person the Celtics will task with stopping all this is Marcus Smart, who is almost exactly what Jimmy Butler would be if you gave him astigmatism and replaced his megalomania with the world’s deepest inferiority complex. Smart was brilliant in his particular way against the Raptors, alternating sequences of sublime defense and clutch shot-making with some of the most artful and bogus flopping you will ever see. Smart isn’t a star for the Celtics the way Butler is for the Heat, but the importance of his defense in this series cannot be overstated. He is the person on the Celtics most qualified to tangle with Butler, and his job in that matchup will be to not fall for Butler pretending to want buckets in order to earn what he is really after, which is free throws. Smart will win some of these battles with strength and reflexes and preternatural defensive instincts; others he will win by throwing himself on the ground in front of a referee; others he will lose. In all cases you and I will feel like shit.
It gets worse! Gordon “Education Reform” Hayward is likely to return to the court at some point in the Eastern Conference Finals, according to head coach Brad Stevens. I for one look ahead to the Celtics surging toward the Finals and Jason Whitlock’s inevitable column shoehorning Hayward and teammate Daniel Theis into the increasingly bizarre, grievance-based social cosmology he has constructed around the warping gravity of his own 23-pound head, and feel a wild urge to plunge a rotary hammer into my cranium until I am extremely dead.
The wise thing to do is to take your mind off the outcomes and focus on the process. The basketball in this series should be very good. The Heat and Celtics are two of the best-coached teams in the league. Both teams can play fast and free or they can bear down and grind a good shot out of a long possession against a dug-in defense. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are electrifying players with unlimited potential; Bam Adebayo is the coolest or second-coolest big man in the league; Tyler Herro is doing very bold stuff in big important minutes, as a rookie. Lots of good and cool hoops stuff will happen out there, and it will be rewarding to watch, oh and also Mike Breen and Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy are doing the call, this is hell, we live in hell now, goodbye.