BOSTON – Well NBA fans, you got the Eastern Conference finals matchup you wanted … sort of.
There’s star power on both rosters, but not quite how most of us envisioned it playing out to the point where we are now - the cusp of the Eastern Conference finals pitting the Boston Celtics against the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second year in a row.
LeBron James is back in the Conference finals for the seventh straight year looking and doing what LeBron James has done for more than a decade – dominate when the games mattered most.
And the Celtics are one of the youngest teams in the NBA, and are led by a talented kid in his 20s … and it ain’t Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward who are both out with injuries.
It’s Jayson Tatum who like so many players new to the NBA, grew up admiring James’ play only to now find himself pitted against him.
Tatum hasn’t just been good for a first-year player.
He has been exceptional no matter what age or experience you try to put him in, and he’ll need to continue along those lines if the Celtics are to do what seems to be the unthinkable – dethrone LeBron James from the top of the Eastern Conference mountaintop.
Despite Cleveland coming in playing some of its best basketball of the season, there really hasn’t been a riper time than now to knock James’ crew out of the playoffs.
While there are still a handful of holdovers from the team that won it all a couple years ago, there are some clear differences that make this Cavs team more vulnerable than those of the past.
As we saw in this postseason already, Cleveland does not have a definitive No. 2 scoring option. You would think Kevin Love would be that guy, but there have been far too many games played thus far where Love was minimized while it was James – surprise, surprise I know – carrying this team from one game, from one round to the next.
But something happened in the Toronto series that transformed Love back to the stretch-big, all-star caliber player whose talent we have seen give Boston fits in the past.
J.R. Smith continues to be the hot and cold sniper he’s always been for the Cavs, and Kyle Korver is still the standard all 3-point shooters in the league today compare themselves against.
But here’s the thing about the Celtics.
They have in many respects been underdogs in both of their playoff series, despite being the higher seed in both.
It’s not a stretch to see them taking this as a sign of disrespect and with that, adding another chip to an already ginormous chip that they tend to play with that for many players is just a way to get themselves even more motivated.
But for the Celtics, being slighted is a real thing.
Look at the Sixers series.
Most of the experts and Las Vegas too, had Philly winning the series and yet there were the Celtics in position to potentially sweep Philadelphia before ultimately eliminating them in five games.
But feeling disrespected, regardless of whether it’s real or not, will only take you so far.
Ultimately it comes down to your players and how well do they balance talent with mental toughness.
Two series in the books and Boston has shown they can balance both at an elite level.
In the first round series, it was Al Horford getting it done on a nightly basis, with Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier riding shotgun.
Against the Sixers, Jayson Tatum came of age while Brown, Horford, Rozier, etc. filled in whatever gaps needed to be addressed in order to keep Boston on a winning track.
But as we know, it’s one thing to win in the playoffs.
Knocking off LeBron?
Totally different, and far more daunting, of a challenge.
But the talent around James hasn’t been this suspect since that 2007 squad he led to the NBA Finals only to get swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
So yes, I’m saying the Celtics have a chance to do what no team has done since 2010 and that's keep James from getting to the NBA Finals.
And the team that did it in 2010?
That was the Boston Celtics.
Can they do it again?
Logic tells you they can't.
The NBA experts and the oddsmakers in Las Vegas will tell you the same.
But this Celtics team has been defying what is possible all season, achieving success when they should struggle.
And if they keep to this season-long narrative, LeBron’s reign in the East coming to an end may be closer to an end than anyone outside of the Celtics’ locker room, is thinking.
Which would only add another wrinkle to a conference finals matchup that many wanted and expected to happen, but not quite like this.