Before Game 1
ROMY: “Theatre...the sense of gratuitous urgency with which they are driven to perform useless acts of no present advantage.” - Antonin Artaud
They say that the things that are most dangerous to us, and most proximate, are precisely the ones we can’t afford to stare at (precisely because they pose an existential threat and would melt our brains!). That mental defense mechanism is called ‘psychic numbing’, in other words, our ability to lie to ourselves to keep our minds from contemplating that LeBron is on the loose, in Boston, as we speak.
BILL: Tell me about it. I read and edited eight CelticsBlog preview pieces for Boston’s impending showdown with LeBron James & the LeBronettes. Guess what? LeBron is going to be a big part of this Eastern Conference Finals. But I’ll tell ya, the part of me that is so self-aware about installing a narrative into every sports team I follow, every sporting event I watch, and every sport I live and die for wants the Celtics to be the team that eventually knocks off The King.
It should be us. It has to be us. It just does.
I think about the Celtics eliminating that desperate Cavs team in 2010 and forcing LeBron to leave for Miami and then that Miami team dispatching Boston the following two seasons during the death rattle of The Big Three and then now. If LeBron is truly contemplating leaving Cleveland (again), it should be the Celtics packing his bags and forwarding his mail.
ROMY: Last year, I went to Boston to watch the game where the Cavs bludgeoned us by the largest margin in the history of these proud Celtics’ existence; in 2015, I witnessed JR Smith upercutting Jae Crowder in an elimination game at home (he would never quite be the same after that knee surgery and a series of bad high ankle sprains).
I had two awesome tickets for Game 2, and abandoned cart. If we win--yes, there’s a chance (just one we should whisper very softly inside our heads)--I’ll go to the Finals. But I’m sparing myself the live collective agony of a reprise in the ECF of a much too common and painful refrain.
BILL: Oh, I’ve felt the same way. A friend of mine posted some inane Facebook poll about what truly scares you in the movies. Was it monsters, ghosts, aliens, etc.? I immediately thought about my mother-in-law and LeBron James. As much as I’ve tried to block LeBron out, he’s real. This is really happening. However, in the same breath, I’ve also tried and unsuccessfully attempted to not let myself buy into the house money mentality that so many fans and media members are writing into this playoff run and this latest matchup with James. I mean LeBron VI: Things Get Personal.
ROMY: You’re right, there’s absolutely zero pressure on this series, or team, or in the measured way I’m sure Stevens has framed and offered up this series to his guys.
(Sidebar: In a distant parallel universe, you can imagine drunk Brett Brown foaming at the mouth, saying things like “no one belieeeeeeves in us because we’re young, but, But, BUT we’ve...we’ve got the opportunity to prove them wrong dammit!”)
This match up had a chance to have everything a vicious, incestuous ECF should: the dried blood from past defeats, lingering grievances and the opportunity to exact revenge and add another contentious chapter to an already voluminous book of run-ins. LeBron vs. Kyrie, Isaiah vs. the Celtics, LeBron vs. the team whose hopes at a title he single-handedly dashed in a freak play in the first 5 minutes of the season.
Yet, I woke up this morning feeling pretty rested, and not with that nagging feeling of anxiety you get the morning of an exam that might go sideways. Theoretically, I think this is why:
LeBron is another stratosphere. But LeBron is also running out of time.
Welcome to the weirdo matchup where two teams are playing each other, but where not much is being said about them fighting against each other in the way you would expect in an ECF. Somehow, there are two narratives in this series, but both exist in separate planes.
The Celtics don’t think of time, they don’t look at things in the same time horizon as others do. They are the basketball presentists who so live in the moment-to-moment that they don’t care about the arc of the moral universe, nor do they think anyone is owed any justice.
Sure, LeBron is facing the Celtics, but he’s really just fending off his own mortality and like a foreman can bend metal at incredibly high temperatures, I imagine him blowing fire on his wilted cast of miscellania teammates, shepherding their weary ( / lousy) souls the only place he knows where to be this time of year.
This postseason is a dream. The Celtics are a-historical. They are above the Cavs because they are above everyone and everything. The Celtics are on their inevitable progression curve towards East and league dominance and LeBron is playing out some desperate ritual enactment of demolition across the league, striking off one opponent at a time. I honestly don’t know if this Celtics team would feel the weight of any crown, because it would be so equally distributed and Stevens would swat the glare of the media with his impeccable level of quiet disdain.
When you think about it, opponents don’t matter so much to this year’s Celtics. Getting here was a supreme show of all the thing that make this team uncannily special, not only in our eyes, but in Stevens’ also (saying this squad is the “toughest” he’s ever coached, is something truly truly special).
BILL: You’re so right. Once again, everything is high school. The Celtics are me, age 16: living in the moment, obsessed with License to Ill, crushing on Michelle Wilson (pigtails, third row, chem lab) and Larry Bird (small forward, Boston Celtics). Anything that mattered was in the immediate, no matter that the next decade of my life would be what would eventually define me forever. You just didn’t think that way.
But that’s the trick, right? Brad Stevens has these guys believing that every play, every two minute stretch, every quarter, and every game matters. I’m trying to be a prisoner in the moment with them, but I’m a victim of self-awareness. Are you a fan of Noah Baumbach’s Kicking & Screaming? It’s a movie about a bunch of college age guys that kinda stick around after they’ve graduated. At one point, one of the characters says, “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory and I didn’t have a good time.” With LeBron approaching, I’ve started picking at the scabs of yesteryear and preparing concession speeches to Cavs Twitter.
ROMY: I’ve chosen to watch this series through Buddhist glasses. Nothing matters, everything matters. COME GET US, BRON! We’ve got bigger plans than you, this series or your collection of feckless players that you’re insincerely calling “teammates”. While he’ll soon be scheming to find bodies and a market that can contort to his whims, the Celtics are staying put and creating something lasting. This series will either be a stray smell of urine on a hot summer New York day, or a spoonful of sweet honey along the way. That’s my story AND MY BLOOD PRESSURE IS STICKING TO IT.
[Prediction: I’m really bad at meditation; my larynx collapses by Game 2.]
After Game 2
ROMY: WE DON’T NEED ANYONE TO BELIEVE. KEEP DOUBTING. KEEP SETTING THOSE ODDS, AND WE’LL KEEP WINNING. OK.
What was unsettling after Game 1--and I’m sure you picked up on the same thing--was LeBron’s serial killer cool in the post game conference, urging the media to revisit all his Game 1’s, or what he calls “feel” games. I mean, that’s like someone tying their shoelace when the pistol goes off in the 800m just to get a sense of how everyone else is getting off the scratch, observing other runners’ strategy, knowing that the intel is more valuable than the head start running would provide him. He wanted us to think that this series hinges on a secret binary control implanted in his brain (does it?).
Come Game 2 and it’s a freaking game of H-O-R-S-E. But you knew it was all hot air and I kept yelling at the team through the screen (BECAUSE THEY CAN HEAR ME) to just stay in the game. Stevens comes out after halftime and despite him always being mum about his team’s performance, he’s intent on letting Doris know that his guys are doing great. Did you feel like neither the thunderstorms nor LeBron’s disrespectful shot-making (which felt more performance art than playoff performance) could overcome the might of these Celtics?
BILL: Here’s the conversation I had with my wife after the first quarter:
HER: Why are they just letting LeBron shoot like that? He’s making everything!
ME: We want him to take those shots. If he’s hitting top-of-the-arc threes and not involving his teammates, that’s a good thing long term.
HER: But he’s making them. I don’t get it.
ME: You know how you let me win an argument sometimes?
HER: I see. I’ll shut up.
I’m happy to report that in the end, I was right, my wife was wrong, and the Celtics won Game 2. It wasn’t intentional, but Boston’s rope-a-dope of LeBron has incredible. His incredible first quarter fueled his bravado. When I saw on Twitter during the pregame that LeBron was at the Garden early to shoot shirtless an hour before anybody else arrived, I kinda expected this kind of aggression. This isn’t Ray Allen getting up shots because that was The Routine; this was LeBron shooting b-roll just in case the director in the ESPN van needed footage for the tribute video.
ROMY: LeBron finished with the kind of line we’ve come to expect of him following a dud. But he got his neck wrenched in the process, finished with 6 TOs (13 for the series) and it felt as inconsequential as any 40+ point game can possibly be. Going back to the notion of two independent narratives playing out on the same stage, one team is fighting for its rightful place in the Finals, and LeBron looks like a politician who has already started penning his memoir while still on the campaign trail because the numbers don’t look so good... (and because what do you do when Jeff Green is your inept Campaign Director?)
BILL: Yes, yes, yes. And I can’t imagine being his teammate or co-star or background actor at this point.
ROMY: The Cavs’ body language was bad. Really bad. Their effort level, more importantly LeBron’s effort level, was unimpressive. He could only cower from Jaylen’s dunk.
Was Rozier coasting by him for the one handed cram unscathed (instead of getting pinned by the LeBron Chase Down Block like a butterfly in a glass case at the museum), or the Cavs failing to jump in the lottery symbolic? Can the Celtics finally exorcize the super-demon of LeBron? What do you think happens between now and Saturday? LeBron said he’s going to try to figure out how to bring more out of his teammates. Should we expect witchcraft? Is CPR the only way? Are rocks sentient beings? I’m going to keep on having nightmares because that’s served us well so far.
BILL: Well, the series is getting nasty. After Marcus Morris’ yelling match with Tristan Thompson and Smart stepping up to JR Smith, Game 3 is going to be a blood bath. I can’t help but think that favors real tough guys. Keith pulled a great quote from a rival exec: “They are a team full of killers. Some are loud like Smart & Morris. Others do it quietly like Horford, Tatum & Brown. And the best, quietest killer of all is on the sidelines because you never see it coming.” The Cavs may make more shots at the Q and they might win a game in Cleveland, but the attrition--both mental and physical--have already started taking their toll and I’m expecting a split.
ROMY: No matter. I’m sure Vegas still has the Cavs as favorites even down 0-2. Pundits don’t have the fortitude to have an opinion other than “well, LeBron.” Plus there’s always a lag between media personalities’ notes and reality, and the reality is that LeBron’s snake charming act might be running out of tricks. (Too soon? My friend put down $150 for us on Boston winning the ECF when she went to Vegas for a conference in February. Just for kicks. She asked me to put the tickets in a safe place, but I never thought I’d need to find them. I’ve lost them. I have no idea where I put them. I never took it seriously. Should I start looking?!)
BILL: This is why you’re having nightmares, Romy. It’s guilt. But hey, at least it isn’t anxiety over LeBron.