- - Wednesday, May 16, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

For NBA fans like yours truly — those of us who love to watch LeBron James and grew up with a healthy abhorrence of the Celtics — the Eastern Conference finals have become a problem.

Why can’t Boston acquiesce to theories about young players and wait its turn like previous upstarts? Why can’t Cleveland ride its experience and coast to a fourth consecutive NBA Finals? Why can’t James‘ brilliance be enough one more time, ensuring that we receive the maximum dosage possible this season?

Here’s my biggest question: Why can’t I hate these Celtics like the Celtics of years past?

Rooting against Boston is a time-honored tradition in my circle of native New Yorkers, Howard University alums and others who now call D.C. our home. We’re not old enough to have detested Red Auerbach’s Celtics with vigor, but the Larry Bird-Kevin-McHale-Robert Parish squads got our full attention and all the negative emotion we could muster.

Naturally, we all preferred Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers.

The dynamics were unchanged when Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen resurrected Boston and split a pair of titles with the Lakers. Kobe Bryant was polarizing and not nearly as likable as Magic, but our booing interests were entrenched and none of us cheered for the Celtics.

When James rose to become the East’s predominant force, he replaced Los Angeles as our favorite Boston killer. He ended the Celtics’ seasons in 2011 and 2012 and the team was broken up after one more year together.

Mixed feelings didn’t exist last season when Cleveland and Boston met in the conference finals. Despite their remarkable little man, Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics still weren’t endearing. Besides, we all wanted to see a rubber match between the Cavs and Golden State in the next round.

But with Boston ahead 2-0, this year is different.

Part of the reason is we doubted Cleveland would be very competitive against the Warriors (assuming they advance against Houston). As much as we enjoy watching James play some of the best basketball ever seen, he clearly needs more help for Cleveland to be taken seriously.

But another part of the reason is Boston’s youthful exuberance and steely resolve. Rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year forward Jaylen Brown and three-year veteran Terry Rozier have played like seasoned pros, overcoming the absence of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Celtics’ underdog vibe is harder to resist this time.

James did his best Tuesday in Game 2, notching 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. Unfortunately for Cleveland, half of his points were in the first quarter. Boston used its superior depth and athleticism to turn a seven-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead entering the final quarter.

“We’ve got to be tougher,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue told reporters after the game. “I think they’re playing tougher than we are. They’re being physical. They’re gooning the game up, and we’ve got to do the same thing.”

No, the Celtics aren’t doing anything dirty like J.R. Smith’s dangerous, two-handed shove of an airborne Al Horford. Lue can focus on the teams’ respective physicality if he likes, but the deeper concern was their contrast in versatility.

Six Celtics reached double-figures in scoring while Aron Baynes added nine points. Only three Cleveland players had double-figure point totals; Tristan Thompson had eight.

The fact is Boston coach Brad Stevens has multiple options at his disposal and uses all of them.

“In a lot of ways, you feel comfortable going to every one of those guys with the game on the line,” Stevens told reporters after the game. “You feel good about all of those guys as guys that can make plays in big moments.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Boston wasn’t supposed to go far in the playoffs without Irving and adapting all season to Hayward’s absence. Cleveland wasn’t supposed to labor after sweeping Toronto and surviving a first-round scare against Indiana.

But the real plot twist?

I wasn’t supposed to find myself secretly, surprisingly, and somewhat regrettably pulling for Boston against LeBron James.

Blame it on baby-faced Tatum, blue-collar Brown, nice-guy Horford and clean-cut Stevens. Their presence, plus the Celtics’ style of play, neutralizes the players who’d otherwise annoy me, irritants like Rozier, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris.

I still wouldn’t mind watching James in the NBA Finals. But all in all — at least this season — these Celtics have overcome my lifelong animus against Boston.

That’s a problem and I’m ashamed.

• Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.


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