There’s a fine line between respect and fear. It can be easy to confuse the two when dealing with danger, which is ironic because dangerous situations are exactly the time when it’s important to know the difference. Respect is knowing that a rattlesnake can kill you and staying wary for any signs of them. Fear is wearing a suit of armor through the desert to prevent snake bites and getting stuck in the escalator at the Albuquerque mall. Respect is knowing that something has the power to harm you. Fear is what gets you put on the “Epic Mall Fails” Instagram page. (Please take it down, guys.)
LeBron James commands more respect than anyone not named Michael Jordan in NBA history. The psychology of playing someone like that in a seven game series requires that you respect just how lethal your opponent is without terror freezing you into non-action. Too much bravado in the face of exactly how dangerous LeBron is will get you two thumbs in the eyes like Oberyn Martell. However, being overly cautious and frightened of King James will get you picked apart and collapsed into a shuddering pile. Just ask the Toronto Raptors.
James is someone who has lived through a an incredible shift of basketball narrative himself. For most, basketball is simply the combat of “man versus man”; a contest of domination to see who can be best. James became the best early in his career, and before he won a title, which shifted his conflict point a bit. James went from ”classical basketball narrative” to “modernist basketball narrative” as his primary struggle became “man versus self."
It stands to reason that the most singularly talented player of his generation should find a way to dominate, but the 2011 Finals remain as a talisman to a time when James’s greatest foe was his own cerebral ebbs and flows. James overcame that at the expense of a Thunder team cursed by the same excess of talent untempered by mental preparation. With that boogeyman banished, he was able to build himself into the avatar of dominance he has become today.
So how do you beat a man who has conquered the modernist basketball narrative?
It’s simple. You become post-modern and make the conflict of LeBron James "man versus reality."
It’s absurd for the Celtics to even consider defeating a man who destroyed the #1 seed in the East in four games. The recent history of the Eastern Conference is littered with the corpses of teams with more wins and fewer hospital cafeteria cards than this Celtics squad. In terms of fan expectations, the Celtics have been playing with house money since Kyrie Iriving’s surgery, and no one would have batted an eyelash if the Celtics had been ejected from the conference finals in four games.
However the Celtics have willed an absurd new reality into existence. It’s one where missing All-Stars, coaches voting, and Shane Larkin are no longer what they appear to be. It’s a reality where history means nothing, narratives are inverted, and permanence is optional. There’s no reason to be scared of anything, because nothing is concrete enough to be worth getting concerned about. The team focuses on what’s in front of them, believes in their own innate ability, and simply wills it into being.
Marcus Morris set a tone for this. His defense on LeBron James was crucial in Game 1, and it’s really possible that Ty Lue adjusts his own starting lineup to possibly knock Morris out of Brad Stevens’. Think about where Morris was just one week ago and consider the gravity of that sentence. It’s outrageous, silly, and reality-bending. All the same, that’s what is happening with this Boston Celtics squad. They’ve ripped apart the fabric of reality to the point that LeBron James posting up a point guard ends like this.
LeBron James is a master of narratives and media, or so I’m always told by various profile pieces. He has spent over a half decade as the unassailable “greatest player in the world” with the power to make and break stories as he so chooses. Free agency will literally come to a halt for him this off-season and if you are someone who writes about the NBA, it makes sense to begin with a healthy respect for the authority of King James. Similarly, that means that painting anything shorts of absolute reverence for James’ abilities as out-of-touch insanity. It’s a healthy bet, because it’s how the league has worked for seven years and is almost always correct.
That said, these Dadaist Celtics don’t play by the rules of what’s sane or real. Aron Baynes just decided he can shoot threes and it happened. Terry Rozier apparated a 90s sports icon from wine country to series clinching podium game where he schilled his wine. Marcus Smart is a such a being of pure chaos that he exists in the fabric between planes. They aren’t scared of the rules and consequences of reality, because they quite simply don’t live in that world.
So what happens when that echoes into our reality? What happens when the world remembers that, at the end of everything, the 33-year-old James has played the most minutes since he was 26-years-old? What happens when the world remembers that the Cavs simply making it to this point has required every drop of James’s storied greatness? What happens to reality when the 29th ranked team by defensive efficiency is being dissected on a national stage? What happens when the narrative shifts from “Do The Celtics Stand a Chance Against LeBron?” to “How Much is Too Much For The Great LeBron James?”
However, even after you figure out that the Great and Powerful Oz might be hiding behind the curtain, there still might be a bomb behind the fabric. Losing respect for someone as dangerous as LeBron James is the horror movie equivalent of being a teenager necking with your best girl in a Cadillac at Lovers' Point. Indeed, the Cavs could win tonight and the reality that was fading could snap right back into place. That said, these Celtics aren’t scared of the reality of losing, because it’s purely theoretical to them.
They aren’t scared.
While that isn’t enough to beat LeBron James, it’s certainly a start.