Dubs-Celtics Finals a compelling matchup on and off court

Dubs-Celtics Finals a compelling matchup on and off court

The last time the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors met in the Finals, the world was a very different place. NBA players still wore Chuck Taylors, nobody had ever golfed on the moon, and the Dubs had not yet become one of the most successful NBA franchises of all time. Those Celtics had already accumulated six championships when they met and defeated the then-San Francisco Warriors in their first and — to that point — only confrontation in the Finals. That’s exactly how many rings the Warriors have today as they prepare to face the Celtics once again, 58 years later.

One thing is all but sure: Whoever wins, the rich will get richer. This is the sort of series that will split a nation by forcing it to confront which charmed and prosperous team they loathe least. It will be a Trojan horse of schadenfreude for the folks who can’t stand either of these wounded squads. At least it’s sure to draw in bonkers ratings, which will delight Adam Silver.

It’s a given that these two fan bases — one rooting for the NBA’s most successful franchise historically (sorry Lakers fans, the Bubble Championship only counts as half, I don’t make the rules), the other for its modern kings — are unbelievably lucky , but still hilariously prone to complaining and whining about their incredibly successful teams being disrespected. I’m not exempting myself here; I whine all the time trying to defend this team’s reputation! It comes from a place of love. Obviously, the unhinged ramblings (Just kidding! Sort of!) of Celtics fans comes from a very similar place of affection. Wicked affection, dude.

To be clear, I’m not saying it’s not okay to revel in occasionally preposterous levels of sports nationalism! No, in fact, this is the sort of emotionally-charged background noise that can pay dividends later in the series if and when the bad blood really starts to emerge. Let’s just preface this next bit: There are of course many normal, well-adjusted Golden State and Boston fans (dozens even) who are just straight-up happy for their teams and are here for the vibes and a good clean game. There are also NBA fans in general who probably hate one or both of these teams and all the things they (rightly or wrongly) represent, but find themselves nonetheless thrilled to witness this potentially myth-making collision of styles. There are also people who know the names of maybe up to five professional basketball teams, and this series is definitely a boon to those folks.

So, this match-up will not exactly be a duel of false modesty. I hope you’re sitting down as you read this to avoid the shock, but Boston fans have a bit of a reputation. You could say, and I will: They flaunt a rabid hot-headed intensity rarely matched in the civilized world. The persecution complex may be somewhat of a generational thing, but the tenacity spans all cohorts. Since we ushered in the new century, the generic Boston fan has watched their teams win 12 championships and come in second nearly as many times! And yet the chip on the shoulder is just as massive as it’s ever been. These people take stuff very seriously! Just recall the genuine outrage over Kyrie Irving’s little stomp on Lucky the Leprechaun, who, it must be said, is not a real Leprechaun. They are a boisterous, belligerent bunch. And that’s without wading into the city’s fraught history with racism, which of course, is not unique to Beantown.

On the other side of the ledger, Golden State has, from Joe Lacob and trickling on down, fostered a dominant franchise around two tentpoles: Stephen Curry and excessive hubris. And Light Years mentality doesn’t play very well outside of the Bay Area. Like fellow nouveau-riche and trendy gatecrashers, Manchester City, the Warriors’ recent domination gave the rest of the league whiplash. Nobody likes the big dog. Golden State fans also have this tone-deaf tendency (I do on a daily basis) to pirouette around the team’s present-day success by invoking their moribund past. This feels extremely valid, since many of us came of age when this team was trapped under the weight of decades of futility. No matter how great the team is, we’re still in some ways psychically broken by the very path that led us to our deliverance. But you try telling that to fans of 90% of the association’s teams and you’re getting laughed out of the dive bar. In the eyes of the world, the Warriors we grew up with don’t exist any more. To them, the Dubs are the team that ruined basketball for three years, never mind that it ended ignominiously with Kevin Durant’s ego-driven defection and two lost seasons. I can hear the chortles now. Just two lost seasons? How special!

That’s before you even address the stereotypes bestowed upon your average Warriors fan! Frontrunners. Bandwagoners. Whether fairly or not, and I think mostly not, there is the sense of entitlement and luxury wafting from certain pockets of the fanbase, which is sadly part of the territory of being a team of this level, and certainly a team of this level in such an affluent and inscrutable part of the country. Certainly, there is a subsection of Warriors fans who are literal venture capitalists (also Andre Iguodala) and crypto bros and people in tech who talk like robots and are actively destroying the social fabric of the world at their day jobs. So, that sucks on a cellular level and all, but as they say, people who own multiple NFTs of Bored Apes buy fitted caps too.

What we are left with is a clash of mirror images, starting on the hardwood and extending outward. Superficially at least, the similarities are obvious. Both teams are anchored by their homegrown, and somewhat (if you squint) corresponding Big 3s. The defensive engines and bold playmakers in Marcus Smart and Draymond Green. The consummate second-fiddle capable of swinging big games in Jaylen Brown and Klay Thompson. Self-effacing superstars in Jayson Tatum and big shot-makers in Stephen Curry. Heck, even beyond the obvious, Steve Berman of The Athletic recently tweeted that Al Horford, Boston’s stabilizing big, is the most Warriors-like player who never played for the Warriors. Both teams are defensive machines that often zone out and lose their concentration on offense. Both cores were ushered into their first Finals by a first-year coach who disturbed and remade the culture of the team in his own image. Both teams have felt the sting of Kyrie Irving’s wrath. Warriors owner and trophy-seducer Joe Lacob used to be a Celtics minority owner.

It’s these little pockets of overlap, in terms of the teams’ trajectories and identities and dispositions, as well as their respective followers that make this Finals pairing so compelling. Call it the Narcissism of Small Differences Finals. In the Old Money vs. New Money matchup, bet on money to win.

The strawmen are out in force, so let’s strive to burn them down as often as possible — ours as well as theirs. Worrying aloud that the team who made the Finals isn’t getting their proper due is enough to make Sacramento Kings fans spontaneously combust. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize. This is going to be a great, punishing, beautiful and also probably ugly series, regardless of the off-the-court chatter. The two best defenses in the league trying to negate one another from existence in real time. The rising sun and the setting sun locked in combat. Draymond Green and Marcus Smart trash-talking themselves into oblivion. This is what it’s all about.

And make no mistake, this will be Golden State’s most difficult test. These Celtics are a team they’ve always struggled with, going 7-9 against in the Kerr era. They are long, versatile, and as tough and physical as any team in the league. They will make every possession a war of attrition. They are uniquely built to disrupt and brutalize the motion-heavy, pass-happy Warriors. They will force bad shots. They will wall off the paint and take Jordan Poole out of the game and force Andrew Wiggins to chase Jayson Tatum for 40 minutes and they will make life for Steph Curry miserable. They have youth and length on their side and maybe destiny too. My head tells me the Celtics should probably win this one in 7.

But you never get anywhere, literally anywhere, listening to your head.

Warriors in 6. A tough six, goal six.

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