Sorry, Bucks. You’ve had a wonderful season, but we’re going to need you to get out of the way. Same for you, you resilient champion Raptors, still so tough even with Kawhi Leonard gone west.
As for you Sixers? Consider this a thank you for your early implosion and chronic underachievement. We’re not saying Al Horford is an embedded Celtic. But hey, we’re not saying he’s not, either.
The whole lot of you — true contenders and phony pretenders for Eastern Conference supremacy in the NBA — are officially on notice. The Celtics need to get to the Finals this year. They need to play the Lakers. And if you don’t get out of their way on your own, they are becoming fully capable of dismissing you themselves.
The Celtics’ thrilling, exasperating 114-112 loss Sunday afternoon to LeBron James and the Lakers at the Staples Center was confirmation of something we’ve been thinking about for a while, and first broached with you guys in a column less than two weeks ago on Jayson Tatum’s development into an A-list, franchise-cornerstone superstar:
This is the year — it must be — for the Celtics and Lakers to renew their historic rivalry in the Finals.
The teams are worthy of a showdown. James has the roster he wants in Los Angeles, with Anthony Davis forsaking the Celtics’ overtures in the offseason to force his way to LA. Dwight Howard is rejuvenated as a role player and remains as deeply annoying as ever. Old Celtics favorites Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley are reunited in gold and purple, and man, that looks weird, seeing Boston’s former starting backcourt now doing their thing in LA.
The Lakers have a five-game lead over the Nuggets for the best record in the Western Conference. Although a compelling postseason collision with the Clippers is probably ahead, they are the favorites, for everything.
Chances are the Lakers — should James and Davis remain healthy — will get to the Finals, so it’s on the Celtics to hold up their end of the deal and guarantee the first postseason showdown between the league’s two winningest franchise in a decade.
Both symmetry and sympathy demand it. The last time the Lakers and Celtics faced off in the Finals, Los Angeles won in seven games, with the Kendrick Perkins-less Celtics running out of fuel in the fourth quarter of the clincher. Kobe Bryant was the Finals MVP that year even though he did not play well in the clincher until, of course, the final moments demanded it.
A decade later, Bryant is gone, the victim of a still-staggering helicopter crash in January that also took the life of his daughter Gigi and seven other people. It’s not that his death casts a shadow over this NBA season. It’s so much more than that. His effect on the game and this generation of players was such that his memory is intertwined with virtually everything that happens. His public remembrance in Los Angeles was Monday, but this entire NBA season is now an ongoing homage. A Celtics-Lakers Finals is the only fitting end.
Sunday’s game was confirmation of how vibrant this rivalry remains even though they haven’t met with a championship on the line in a decade. The game had the vibe of the rivalry’s old-school ’80s heyday, tipping off as a 3:30 p.m. matinee with one almost expecting Brent Musburger to show up and tell us we were “looking live at the fabulous Forum . . . ,’’ even though the forum has long since changed.
There were many familiar faces courtside. Kevin Garnett, the fulcrum of the Celtics’ most recent championship in 2008, was near the Celtics’ bench, while the greatest winner of them all, the incomparable Bill Russell, attended while wearing a Bryant No. 24 jersey.
The game felt like a big deal, and both teams treated it as such. The Celtics, who smoked the Lakers, 139-107, back on Jan. 20, were ready for the rematch despite playing without stalwart guard Kemba Walker, who is dealing with a sore knee that may have been exacerbated by overuse by a rival coach in the All-Star Game.
No one was readier than Tatum, the 21-year-old forward and Bryant disciple who has emerged as a top-tier star over the last few weeks, attacking tirelessly on offense like an elongated version of Paul Pierce.
The similarities don’t end there. Pierce, famously, got his nickname “The Truth” from expert nickname bestower Shaquille O’Neal after dropping 42 points on the Lakers in a March 2001 game.
After Tatum scored 41 points on the Lakers Sunday — doing most of his damage against Davis — James took to Instagram to express his respect for the growth in Tatum’s game, referring to the Celtic as an “absolute problem.”
The Problem? Yeah, that’s a nickname that could stick.
There were some frustrations to take away from Sunday’s game, no doubt. The officiating was horrendous in the fourth quarter, with the refs providing further reminder that James’s teams seemingly get about 95 percent of the calls that look like they could go either way when the game is on the line.
But the Celtics didn’t lose because of the officiating. They lost because Gordon Hayward missed some easy shots, including an ill-advised layup with the Celtics up, 110-108. They lost because Marcus Smart was late getting the ball to Tatum on the final play, dribbling one or two or three times too many before an off-balance pass. They lost because Rondo, as crafty as ever and still one who thrives in the marquee games, ate backup guard Brad Wanamaker alive. They lost because James created and knocked down a great shot for the winning points.
The Celtics do have some matters to work out before making a rematch in the Finals happen. The bench is thin and/or inexperienced, and it’s wise of Brad Stevens to give Romeo Langford and Grant Williams meaningful minutes to see what they can handle. (It’s a bummer that Carsen Edwards hasn’t panned out yet; I was sure he was up for being this team’s version of Eddie House.)
Getting Robert Williams back from his hip injury will help. Keeping their top six players healthy from now through the playoffs is going to be the key to everything. Let’s hear it for load management.
The Celtics and Lakers gave us a game to talk about, one that stuck with us well after the final buzzer Sunday. From Russell and Wilt, to Larry and Magic, to Kobe and the Truth, that’s a gift they’ve often given us through the generations.
It’s time for Tatum to be the Lakers’ problem. It’s time for James to be the nemesis to a new era of Celtics. It’s time for that rivalry to renew in the Finals again.
It’s been a decade. That’s already too long. This year, for basketball reasons but the saddest of reasons, too, it would just seem right.