BOSTON – One of the worst playoffs in NBA history reached its nadir on Friday night with a biblically bad 44-point, nationally televised beatdown by the Cavaliers, a game as competitive as a Globetrotters exhibition with all the drama of a Law & Order rerun. Get ready for those Cavs-Warriors promos, folks, with the promise of a Finals war. Remember how good the last two Finals were, the league will say, and, please, forget everything you watched before it.
In November, the NBA is a 30-team league. In April, it’s whittled to three. In soccer, inferior teams are relegated to a lower division. If adopted by the NBA, Cleveland, Golden State and San Antonio would form one league – with 27 other teams playing for something else.
Indeed, the gap between two teams – Golden State, whose path to the Finals was cleared by Kawhi Leonard’s injury, and Cleveland – and everyone else has never been wider. Two franchises, neither with another peer. The success has been paralyzing; more would-be contenders are thinking about how to compete with them three years from now than playing spoiler before.
Take Boston. The Celtics are good– 53-win, top-seed good. They have one All-Star (Isaiah Thomas) and another (Al Horford) who has been there before. They entered the conference finals with momentum – and have been beaten in two games, at home, by a combined 57 points.
Game 1 was a bloodbath. Game 2 – a 130-86 Eastern Conference finals loss – was worse. The Celtics were confident coming in. They talked tough. LeBron James is “just another guy,” Jaylen Brown said. Added Isaiah Thomas: “They lace up their shoes just like us.” Then came the game, the barrage of 3-pointers, the 50-point-lead reminder of where the Celtics, and everyone else, really stand.
“It’s hard,” Horford said. “It’s hard to take.”
Said Avery Bradley: “It’s honestly just embarrassing.”
Privately, the Cavs didn’t want Boston. The Celtics, you see, couldn’t help. For Cleveland, the playoffs are practice; Washington was a more useful test. Playing the role of Klay Thompson would be Bradley Beal; at supporting actor, Markieff Morris, a poor man’s Draymond Green. Losing to either team never occurred to Cleveland – it was about who could best prepare it for what was coming next.
Not Boston. The Celtics have no one to defend LeBron and no scheme to confuse him. Bradley has attempted 13 threes through two games. He has made three of them. Kelly Olynyk scored 26 points in Game 7 against Washington in the East semifinals. He has scored two since. Talk of adjustments after Game 1 turned into praise of the learning experience in Game 2.
“At the start of the fourth quarter they had a bunch of guys who have been in the league for a long time that were playing their butts off,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Those guys were playing the right way up 45 freaking points. Tremendous examples for us to learn from. You play the right way all the time.”
Thomas has been a shell of his All-NBA self this series, and on Friday we learned part of the reason why: Thomas underwent tests for a strained hip after Game 6 of the Wizards series and has been playing through pain ever since. The injury is considered significant, league sources told The Vertical, and Thomas’ status for the rest of the series is uncertain.
Not that it matters. Cleveland will roll into its third straight NBA Finals, into a showdown with Golden State. There will be screams for Boston to trade the top pick in next month’s draft, to make the future now. But Jimmy Butler doesn’t beat Cleveland this year. Paul George, a potential rental, wouldn’t either. Waiting out LeBron is the safest move – and drafting a potentially transcendent talent like Markelle Fultz is the smartest way to do it.
The league will hype Warriors-Cavs, but make no mistake: It hates this, too. It craves NFL-style parity at Olympic Tower, and the combination of a salary-cap spike and an all-time great’s desire to return home has taken that away from it. It will be three straight years of Warriors-Cavs when the Finals begin next month, and the league knows it is staring down the barrel of one or two more.
The series will be great, because, really, how could it miss? Last year featured a comeback, a critical suspension and enough bad blood to fuel a rivalry. The tension between Green and James is real, and the battle for top point guard between Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving will be spectacular. The star power will yield record-breaking ratings, and the NBA won’t be shy about promoting it.
Yet the stench of this postseason will linger. The rubble of would-be contenders is piling up, with Boston and San Antonio set to join it. The Cavs and Warriors are on another collision course, and it could be years before anyone can stop it.
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