The Toronto Raptors did what they could, but they were never going to better the Cleveland Cavaliers. After dominating the Eastern Conference Finals through two games, the Cavs got lazy, the Raps got mean, and Bismack Biyombo was a piranha plant in the paint. Buoyed by the crowd at the Air Canada Centre, Toronto played their six best quarters of the season, Kyle Lowry doing his slipperiest and nailing pull-ups, DeMar DeRozan sending J.R. Smith every which way, like he was stir-frying the Pipe God in a wok. The Raptors evened the series, first thumping the Cavs, then barely enduring a second-half comeback in Game 4, but as the teams were soaring over Lake Erie in their charter jets, headed back to Cleveland, it was clear what was about to happen. The Cavs strolled into the NBA Finals with a smoldering pile of maple leaves in their wake. Games 5 and 6 were over by halftime.
For the past six seasons, the league’s Western Conference champion has rumbled with LeBron and Friends for the Larry O’Brien trophy. A lot has changed in that span: the Lakers collapsed; the Thunder grew up and dissolved; the Clippers lost their promise; the Spurs reinvented themselves twice over; the Warriors went from a cute team that won shootouts to a great team that won nearly everything. In the East, it hasn’t always been easy for LeBron’s squads—his Heat got into a pair of ugly, difficult tussles with the 2012 Celtics and 2013 Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals—but beyond that, though they’ve dropped some games here and there, they’ve rarely given the impression that they might lose a non-title playoff series. LeBron has owned the Bulls since he arrived in the league, and recent iterations of the Hawks and Raptors haven’t troubled him. Heading into each postseason, it’s close to a foregone conclusion that he and whoever’s flanking him are going to the Finals.
The Celtics have been darlings ever since Brad Stevens made the move from Butler to the pro ranks. They’re an inspiring sort of team that gets a lot of praise from opposing announcers (they don’t beat themselves!) and tactical geeks (lookit those out-of-bounds sets!). They’ve clearly overachieved during the tenure of Stevens, blending second-tier lottery picks with journeymen who have become their best selves and always winning more games than you’d expect them to. The franchise has taken on a low-key mythic air, like old men who are pack-a-day Pall Mall smokers and drink rotgut whiskey every night until they die in their sleep at 92. They’ve been remarkable: not world-beaters, but marvelous in the way they get by. It’s at the edge of belief, how good Isiah Thomas is. Jae Crowder was an intriguing enigma in Dallas, and his talents are now fully legible in Boston. Even fringe guys like Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko contribute a little and detract nothing.
Al Horford is perfectly Celtic-like. He’s skilled, but doesn’t demand a lot of touches. All his coaches have loved him. His greatness is not immediately apparent. He can do all sorts of things—he has a sharp 15-footer and a passable three-point stroke, can post up and pass out of double-teams, and is one of the stoutest big man defenders around—but his most pronounced strength is a steadiness, a sense that he’s never playing beyond his estimable skill set. Horford is a calm and analytical player. He makes not screwing up look like an obvious and simple task. He doesn’t press or often even seem like he’s trying particularly hard.
Brad Stevens isn’t going to show us Al Horford anew. He’s not the sort of player who dazzles, and he turned 30 this past June, so he’s nearing the end of his prime. Horford will do for the Celtics a rendition of what he’s always done, which is anchor the defense and chip in an efficient 15-and-8. There’s a reason Boston fans were tittering this summer about the slightest chance of landing Kevin Durant, and are now wondering how Danny Ainge might be able to wrangle Russell Westbrook. The Celtics, as well-coached and stocked with solid players as they are, need a franchise player in order to credibly compete for titles, and Horford isn’t quite it.
As deflating as this might be, it’s still the early fall, and if now isn’t the time for dreaming, May and June certainly won’t be. No matter the heights these improved Celtics actually reach, they are at least in the imagination, the most enticing rival LeBron will have faced since returning to Cleveland: a squad drilled by one of the league’s better strategists, with a deep bench, and a new star who should pull them out of the Eastern Conference’s grubby middle and into its second-seed. Over seven games, they might be able to give the Cavs trouble. Isiah Thomas could cancel out Kyrie Irving. Jae Crowder can hassle LeBron. Horford will probably outplay Kevin Love.
It’s not that any of these things will happen, but that they’re possible. At the outset of a season, we need something to look forward to, and the addition of Horford adds some intrigue and will make the tilts between the Boston and Cleveland in December and March extra interesting. Maybe the best the Celtics can do this year is serve as worthy antagonists who make the Cavaliers bleed for their third consecutive Finals trip. Maybe they can do a little better than that. That it’s feasible is all that matters now; it gives us a little jolt heading into the year. And whatever happens months from now, hopefully that will be fun too.
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