CLEVELAND — In the city where most of our recent basketball seasons inevitably seemed to end at the hands of LeBron James, now is a good time to note what the Red Sox most definitely are *not* — last year's Celtics.
It's an easy comparison between two underachieving title contenders with superstar young coaches who waited all year for runs that never came, losing their fans in the process.
But that's also where the comparison ends, because for all their flaws, the Red Sox do not belong in the same sentence as the 2018-19 C's, one of the most loathed Boston teams in years.
On Monday night at Progressive Field, right across the street from the Q, the Red Sox dropped a 6-5 walkoff to the high-flying Indians in another crusher. They erased a 5-1 deficit to force extra innings with two outs in the ninth. Then they lost anyway with one swing from Carlos Santana. This just isn't their year and they know it.
"They're the Celtics!" more than one talking head has announced since the 3-9 start, but the comparison simply does not hold.
Let's start with the obvious. The Red Sox are defending champions. They thus had far less to prove than the Celtics, who haven't won anything since 2008 and choked on their mantle of prohibitive Eastern Conference favorites. We knew the Red Sox would return to earth. Few of us expected the C's to hit the ground at terminal velocity.
As a result, the emotional response to each team diverges. Rooting for the Red Sox became an exercise in apathy on July 31, when trade-deadline reinforcements never arrived. By the end of basketball season, we were basically hate-watching the Celtics, who filled even Boston's most forgiving fans with rage.
Why the anger? Because the team's best player embodied the worst characteristics in a leader and star. Kyrie Irving came off as selfish, arrogant, entitled, moody, bipolar, and maybe even duplicitous, given his blurred intentions on ever staying in Boston. He constantly blamed others for the team's failures, and when it all came crashing down during four straight embarrassing losses to the Bucks, he was nowhere to be found. It's hard to decide what was worse — watching him close his Celtics career by going 8-for-22, 7-for-22, and 6-for-21 with multiple airballs, or completely surrendering on defense, like someone saving his energy for Brooklyn.
Irving is an all-time Boston sports villain, and no one on the Red Sox comes even close, including prickly left-hander David Price, whose clubhouse influence has waned since his days of jumping Hall of Fame broadcasters on the team plane.
No, the Red Sox' best players happen to be their most likable ones, whether it's shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who was practically in tears following Monday's loss, or slugger Rafael Devers, who basically smiles from sunup to sundown.
Bogaerts and Devers are just part of a homegrown youth brigade that should return the Red Sox to contention next season if they can just figure out their pitching and get ace Chris Sale — who's accountable and cares about his failings in ways that Irving never grasped — back on track. Defending MVP Mookie Betts, future All-Star Andrew Benintendi, and maybe even hard-throwing reliever Darwinzon Hernandez are just a few players providing equal parts promise and performance.
Now compare that to the young talent in green. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier were supposed to augment the veteran core. Instead, they spent most of the season trying to get theirs, with only Brown figuring out his role by the playoffs before Rozier departed during free agency. What does it say about the future that veteran leader Al Horford looked at Tatum and Brown and said, "You know what? Philly sounds nice."
Devers has an MVP ceiling. Tatum does not. Benintendi will make an All-Star team. Brown might have to settle for being a top-50 player.
Young talent is why we believe the Red Sox can rebound. They could easily win another title in 2020. Conversely, young talent is why we're not sure if the Celtics are even a five-seed. The roster reconstruction around All-Star guard Kemba Walker should make them more likable, but they haven't felt farther from a title since Isaiah's second season.
And then there's this: the Celtics turned on each other like the inhabitants of some kind of cannibal island. Irving took constant potshots at his young teammates and even passive-aggressively questioned coach Brad Stevens, who bears some similarities to Red Sox manager Alex Cora.
The Red Sox have stuck together, even as the pitching staff has failed the offense.
"We're all together," Bogaerts said. "I don't think there's any separation or any pointing fingers at anyone. It's just like, oh man, it's rough. It's been like that for a little bit. It's rough, man."
So spare me the lazy comparison. The Celtics quit on their season and couldn't wait to blow it all up. Deep down, the Red Sox know they're cooked, but they'll arrive in Fort Myers next February seeking redemption, and they just might find it.
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