The Celtics Served The Warriors A Beating, And The NBA A Message

Like everything else in today’s NBA, extreme games don’t seem quite so extreme. The league routinely traffics in the extreme these days—a team winning, or conversely losing, by 50 points, for example, has happened six times this year, which is already more than in any other season in history. Hell, the Celtics alone have been in three of those games, the last of which happened two and a half weeks ago against the deeply sub-ordinary Brooklyns.

But the symbology of Boston’s 140-88 throttling of Golden State on Sunday made all the other half-a-hundreds seem insignificant by comparison, up to and including Chicago’s 120-66 win over Milwaukee in the deciding game of their first round series in the Eastern Conference playoffs back in 2015. Those Bucks were a deeply mediocre 41-41, and a sixth seed; everyone paying attention at the time was far more focused on Golden State’s breakout year and LeBron James’ return to Cleveland. Milwaukee’s leading scorer in that game was Zaza Pachulia, with eight points; Chicago’s was Mike Dunleavy Jr., with 20. It was, in every sense, a game to forget.

This one seems likelier to stick in the memory, even given the relatively insignificant nature of the game itself. (It did clinch a playoff berth for Boston, but early March NBA basketball is insignificant by default.) For one thing, it was unambiguously biblical—the league’s new most terrifying team grabbing the league’s previous most terrifying team by the eyelids and shaking comprehension of the new world order into them one possession at a time. Stephen Curry’s successive airballs midway through the first quarter seemed to flummox Celtics radio play-by-play tonsil Sean Grande—”I need to understand what I just saw” was his answer to Jack Buck’s Kirk Gibson home run call of 35 years ago—but amazingly the game was already taking on a whiffy odor by then. By halftime Steve Kerr had turned it into a load-management extravaganza, sitting everyone with a large sample size except Jonathan Kuminga for the second half.

But this isn’t about the Warriors any more, even though they had won 11 of their previous 13 and emerged as a live if elderly playoff counterpuncher. It isn’t even about them having clinically dispatched the New York Knicks in the Garden two nights earlier to re-establish their bona fides. For basically every minute, this game was about the Celtics asking bystanders to hold the metaphorical beer while they ordered themselves a keg’s worth of growlers to take home. This was about the Celtics stomping yet one more pretend contender for a title that only injury or Nikola Jokic can steal from them. And Jokic gets his caveat only because he is Jokic, given that he can pull a moose from a thimble.

The Celtics are winning more than everyone else in the NBA, and by unnervingly convincing margins—their 10.4 average points margin is sixth all time, and the last six wins of their current 11-game winning streak have come by 50, 17, 14, 18, 28 and 52 points. They are not just winning routinely, their routine win is a comprehensive arse-kicking.

You would be wise to point out that this is March, and early March at that, and that no team has ever won a championship before Tax Day. You might also mention that only one team has had the best record on March 3 and ended up winning the championship since the last time the Celtics won a championship in 2008. That was back when people liked Doc Rivers as a coach—that’s how long ago that was.

But also these Celtics have that 2017 Warriors feel to them, in which they are nine deep in useful players and seem actually superior to the sum of their individual talents, even if you want to quibble that Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, and Kristaps Porzingis are not the equivalent of Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. They seem, from one game to the next, like a team that no team on earth can beat—that is, if you assume that Jokic is an earthling, which we suspect he might not be.

We’ll find that part out—the Nuggets bit, not Jokic’s planet of origin—on Thursday, when the Celtics get to test their flex in Denver. If they leave a double-digit bruise on the Nuggets, then the Celtics will have sent a message that might actually endure longer than this message-sending beatdown, and deeper than the chill you felt at reading that Zaza Pachulia led his team in scoring in a NBA playoff game. You can’t crown a champion on March 3, but maybe you can start thinking about it on March 7.

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