Being a New England sports fan, transplanted or otherwise, is infinitely more fun when the Boston Celtics are relevant.
We’re all spoiled by the Patriots’ dominance this century. There is little drama. There’s no thrill-of-the-chase. We know what we’re going to get: Sustained excellence, and a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy every year.
Even after three championships in a decade, self-loathing is part of our genetic code as Red Sox fans. Whether it’s a 12-game winning streak or a plum hot-stove acquisition, we’re consistently waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The Bruins? Meh. Living where the only long-term ice fills a basket in my freezer, I no longer even pretend to care about the NHL.
Growing up in the early 1980s on a dirt road before cable and computers gave us carte blanche to watch any sporting event in America at any waking moment, the C’s were my jam. I’ll still arm-wrestle anyone who tries to argue that the 1985-86 outfit with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge and Bill Walton isn’t the greatest team of all-time.
With the notable exception of the two-years-or-so that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen gave me a reason, it has been almost impossible to watch pro basketball ever since. The Celtics’ descent into also-random coincided with the overall erosion of the team game and offensive skills throughout the sport.
Happily, everything old is new again. No, I won’t pretend this franchise inspires the same feverish loyalty it did back when I had less of a life, but they’ve forced me to care again.
In the modern NBA, that is nothing short of a miracle. The Celtics are defying the lazy logic that the path to greatness is allowing marquee players to form their own all-star teams and choose their preferred ex-player as the warm-body head coach.
Kyrie Irving did precisely the opposite when he groused his way out of Cleveland and traded places with Isaiah Thomas. Not counting Gordon Hayward, whose window as the other “missing piece” lasted about five healthy minutes, and Jayson Tatum, a gift from the draft lottery, Irving joined an amazingly anonymous team.
Seriously, who are these guys? I love Al Horford. He’s solid. He’s a four-time all-star. He’s also never going to carry a team to the promised land without the right pieces around him.
Credit the oft-maligned but always shrewd and resolute general manager Ainge for that acquisition and so many others. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Shane Larkin, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis never would be highlight-film heroes, even if all-sports networks still showed highlights. The whole vastly exceeds the sum of the parts.
That leads us to Brad Stevens, who for my money is the Celtics’ best pickup from the state of Indiana since drafting the Hick from French Lick. It’s no mistake that they’re using the San Antonio Spurs’ model to build this monster, because right now, Stevens is the best coach in the league this side of Gregg Popovich.
No other team in NBA history has won 14 consecutive games after starting a season 0-2. Thursday’s win over the Warriors was significant on so many other levels, however.
The Celtics were down by double digits. For the seventh time in this winning streak, they trailed at the half. They rallied with Irving in a face mask and Hayward in a wheelchair. With guts, grit and guile, they held everybody’s predetermined champion 30 points beneath their season scoring average.
Brad’s boys have brought 1990s defensive sensibility back to a league obsessed with offensive analytics. What’s more, they have accomplished the unthinkable: Establishing themselves as the clear Eastern Conference favorite while LeBron James is still playing for someone else.
They pulled this off by being unafraid to blow it up and try something new. They have brought in players with up-side and instilled a system that has a long shelf life. This isn’t a two-year plan or a feeble attempt to keep pace in the arms race that soured so many of us on the NBA.
It’s a special team, one that is a joy to watch and has injected new life into this weary ex-New Englander’s bones.
Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department. He now lives in hoops heaven as sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.