Commentary

Playoff anomaly? Celtics as Cinderella

Boston's success puts the lie to the LeBron James/Michael Jordan star-power value

Originally Published: May 26, 2010
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

A team making an improbable, under-the-radar, Cinderella run toward a championship … that's normally the domain of the NCAA basketball tournament, not the NBA playoffs. Yet the Boston Celtics, the most successful franchise in league history, a team that just won the NBA title two seasons ago, are being treated like the second coming of "Hoosiers."

It's maybe understandable that nobody saw Butler coming through March Madness a couple of months ago; but there are only 30 teams in the NBA, and the Celtics are a frontline charter member. How can a team with 17 NBA titles sneak up on anyone?

[+] EnlargeBoston Celtics
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackThe Celtics haven't had the same player lead the team in scoring in back-to-back games all postseason.

The answer -- one answer, anyway -- is this: Even 10 years after his retirement, the enormous, omnipresent shadow of Michael Jordan still seems to be dictating that the NBA must market itself with a signature player rather than a signature team. For a long time now, the Jordan Model has been responsible, at least in part, for the creep of selfishness, isolations, dunks and 3-pointers into the pro game.

And the league, its partners and its fans haven't seemed able to recognize the value in the renaissance of inclusive team basketball these playoffs are giving us. What we're seeing at this stage of the postseason -- from the Celtics, as well as from several other teams that have moved deep into the playoffs -- should be appealing to the purists and rendering the Jordan formula no longer necessary.

The effects of the Jordan Model are evident in two areas. The first is the infatuation -- make that the obsession -- with LeBron James. The second is the perception that the Celtics went into their second-round playoff series as decided underdogs to the prohibitive favorite Cleveland Cavaliers, who were led, of course, by James.

James is so ubiquitous even now in media reports about the league that it's sometimes difficult to forget that he's no longer playing this season. His personal free agent drama doesn't officially begin for another five weeks, but where James will play next season is overshadowing the teams that still have a chance to win the NBA title.

And that, in one sense, suggests that the league might be more invested in seeing James succeed than its other players. James' injured elbow was so much the focus of the Cleveland-Boston series that the four days off between the second and third games were seen, at least in the blogosphere, as a conspiracy to give him additional time to heal. And his performance in Game 3 -- 38 points in a 124-95 rout of the Celtics -- only fueled the sentiment, by then given voice in the mainstream media, that the schedule, if not orchestrated to this end, had clearly been helpful to James.

The Cavaliers put together the league's best regular-season record, but by no means was Cleveland "the" team to beat in the playoffs. Orlando had the hottest hand entering the postseason, and the Lakers were the NBA's most complete team. The Magic, not the Cavaliers, are the defending Eastern Conference champions. And Los Angeles won it all a year ago.

Much of the hype about James and the Cavs is a byproduct of the league's business partners. Much of ESPN's post-series analysis was devoted to James rather than the team that beat him, and TNT did the same. A year ago during the playoffs, Nike marketed itself with a silly LeBron James-Kobe Bryant puppet campaign in anticipation of a Lakers-Cavaliers final that didn't happen; the Magic eliminated Cleveland in the conference finals. So the NBA isn't entirely responsible here, but it nevertheless reflects poorly on the league.

It should also be noted that while James is one of the game's top two signature attractions in terms of sales and flash, he is not even the league's best player or its greatest winner, despite securing the past two MVP awards. That honor goes to Bryant, who might soon be playing in his third consecutive NBA Finals and seventh overall.

[+] EnlargeJames
AP Photo/Charles KrupaLeBron James is still without a title. And these playoffs have shown again that he can't do it alone.

The way the Boston-Cleveland series developed seemed to grudgingly force a re-examination of the question: Were the Celtics really inferior to the Cavaliers?

It should be remembered that the Celtics won a championship two years ago with the same core group. That team defeated the James-led Cavaliers in seven games in the conference semifinals. Last year, Boston lost to Orlando in seven games in the same round, without Kevin Garnett.

Still, while the league and the pundits were busy anointing the still-titleless James (can we leave the "King James" nonsense to the fans?) this season, the Celtics' story went underreported. They were an unhealthy team trying to navigate a repressive regular season to arrive at the short season -- the playoffs -- in shape to contend.

The Cavaliers' game was to watch James dribble and bull his way to the basket, while the Celtics countered with three Hall of Fame players and a breakout star in Rajon Rondo. James is next to impossible to defend individually; but basketball, despite evidence to the contrary on the blacktop or in many NBA arenas, is not an individual game. The Celtics employed a team defensive concept that exposed James, his teammates and his coaches, who did not adjust.

So on the court, the facts were changing. Cleveland was on its heels. Rondo was the best player on the court. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett were healthy and better than the Cavaliers' supporting cast. The facts simply didn't jibe with the preordained narrative.

Boston's run so far certainly has been impressive, so much so that this playoff team is now, finally, drawing comparisons to the 2007-08 team, which began that season as a favorite to win the title and ended it with the 17th championship in Celtics history.

The NBA still seems so desperate to position James as the next Jordan -- and let's not underestimate their similarities: same number, similar endorsements, same Nike marketing machine -- that a great era of team basketball might be passing it by. It isn't just the Celtics. The Magic, the Phoenix Suns and, to a lesser extent, even Bryant's Lakers play the team game tremendously well, both on the offensive and defensive ends. The Lakers, for whom Bryant is the unquestioned star, employ a strong team defensive concept and have accomplished role players in Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest.

Jordan
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty ImagesMichael Jordan set a standard for signature play that the rest of the NBA is still trying to meet.

The Magic exposed the Cavaliers last year, as the Celtics did this year. Both were complete teams with multiple weapons overcoming James' one-man show. But instead of recognizing a shift in tone, the response has been the same: What went wrong for James?

There is another similarity between James and Jordan, and it's an unflattering one. For the past five seasons, James, the one-man team, has been bettered in the playoffs by complete teams -- Detroit in '06, followed by San Antonio in '07, Boston, Orlando and Boston again -- just as in his day, Jordan found himself flustered by the Celtics and the Pistons until those teams (and the league with them) weakened.

None of this is exactly new. Jordan created a template that emphasized player over team. By now, that era is over on the court, but it's still very much alive with the sales and marketing folks. The San Antonio Spurs, fading but still relevant after four NBA titles between 1999 and 2007, were the pioneers of this unrecognized renaissance on the court. The Spurs eventually may have four players from those title years in the Hall of Fame: David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

The Pistons, who played for two championships and won one over the two-year span from 2003 to 2005, were constructed in the same fashion as Orlando, San Antonio and Boston. They were solid and balanced, with a defensive-minded core and many veteran weapons who play the team game.

No one seems to be paying much attention to it as Jordan sits in the owner's box in Charlotte and James is packed for the summer, but those teams have been a welcome antidote to the monarchy.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42

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