Anoint Yourself, Dammit!

Let it not be said that the Boston Celtics are bad at basketball. They are, in fact, pretty good! Thursday night they whipped the daylights out of the Indiana Pacers, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, winning 126-110 in a game that featured five minutes of late garbage time. After farting around with the lower-seeded visitors for most of the first quarter, the Celtics scored 20 straight points bridging the quarter break, expanded their lead to double digits in the third, and vanished over the horizon in the fourth.

The Pacers did not have a chance to finish the job they’d fumbled away at the end of Game 1. Also, Tyrese Haliburton tweaked a hamstring in the second half; if this injury persists into the next couple games of this series the Pacers are turbo-dead. While you are not letting things be said, let it not be said that the Indiana Pacers are especially good or serious, or particularly suited to this moment.

Let it also not be said that Jaylen Brown is bad at basketball. He’s pretty good! Thursday he put up 40 points on 27 shots, and the Celtics won his 37 minutes by 18 points. Brown has been good and reliable in these playoffs, as befits the player who starting next season will have the most expensive contract by total salary in the history of the sport. Brown has not always been at his best in the playoffs, owing largely to the fact that he cannot dribble a basketball, but certainly he is doing his part to lift the Celtics over the series of entirely unserious opponents that they’ve faced so far. If you built an All-Star team of the best players from the Miami Heat, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Indiana Pacers, and socked it into the Western Conference playoffs, it would lose to the Minnesota Timberwolves by one jillion points per game. Let it not be said—and I realize that at this point I am prohibiting willy-nilly whole entire vectors of discourse—that the Eastern Conference, outside of Boston, is worth a damn.

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I hate to do this to you, but: Let it further not be said that motivating yourself to strive for excellence is super easy when the challenge before you requires not too much more than that you are present and awake. Sometimes a person has to thrash around for something to get the blood pumping—certainly the Tyler Herro–led Miami Heat will not do it—and sometimes that effort requires that you imagine slights where there are none. Athletes are great at this, which is why we have the term “bulletin board material.” Brown, whose pulse may truly not have risen above 90 beats per minute in Game 2, noticed that he was not named to any of the 2023–24 All-NBA teams, and if he is not actively enraged about it, he is at least Not Mad levels of mad. Brown, you see, is used to watching others get the rewards that by rights ought to be his:

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“I mean, I watch guys get praised and anointed who I feel like are half as talented as me, on either side of the ball,” said a somber Brown after Thursday’s victory. “But at this point in my life I just embrace it. It comes with being who I am and what I stand for, and I ain’t really changing that.” It seems like it is Brown’s position that stances he’s taken in the past have disadvantaged him with awards voters, and while I don’t want to rule that out entirely, I also do not at all want to engage in this topic. There is nothing more boring in the history of human discourse than the matter of which NBA player made or did not make which All-NBA team. Ranking the players in the top 20 of the NBA right now requires some incredibly fine slicing. I don’t think it’s possible to argue seriously that Brown had a better season or is better than any of the five guys who made the first team, but beyond that my eyes start to glaze over and I simply cannot be motivated to care. Perhaps Brown had a better season than Kawhi Leonard; perhaps he is a better overall two-way player than Haliburton; perhaps Domantas Sabonis is a big angular try-hard oaf who will never be the best player on a series-winning playoff team for as long as he lives.

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(Perhaps the All-NBA player whom Brown believes possesses half his talent is teammate Jayson Tatum, who made the first team and finished sixth in MVP voting. You can’t rule it out!)

The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement uses these and other accolades to determine who is eligible for maximum-value contracts, so players are incentivized to give a rip, which is possibly for the best, because otherwise it would be sensible for everyone everywhere to regard All-NBA honors as entirely manufactured and bogus. I can see how that might run counter to the league’s commercial objectives.

But as Brown has already secured a max-value contract extension, probably he could afford (figuratively speaking) to differentiate between things that matter (professional security, job satisfaction, success) and things that do not (who is getting “anointed” via arbitrary and made-up awards). There’s basically no anointing left for a player who has hit the formal criteria for being paid literally the most that a team is ever allowed to pay a player; even winning a title will not confer some additional personal benefit, beyond satisfaction and some jewelry.

It’s not Boston’s fault that the Eastern Conference is a joke. It’s not Brown’s fault that conditions in the East make it hard to get big red heart eyes about the second-best guy on the conference’s only legitimate title contender; it’s not even really Brown’s fault that years of the Celtics coming up short have made it seem like the only time it’s important to check in on them is when they’re on the brink of elimination. Or anyway it’s not only his fault.

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But it was true when Devin Booker was whining about flowers in Phoenix and it’s true again today: A supermax-contract-level NBA superstar enjoys an almost pure meritocratic professional existence. You are paid to be the foundation of your team’s success. Go out there and beat the other guys, and there will be no choice for the rest of us but to hand it to you. Even Mickey Mouse champions get to kiss the trophy.

What I am saying is this: Let it not be said that Jaylen Brown deserves to be “anointed” until he and his teammates do something other than clobber shitty teams from the East. Even the Celtics themselves are bored of this bullshit! Please dig a sharp elbow into my side when Boston is back in the Finals; until then I will be napping.

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