A year ago, the Boston Celtics seemed to be falling apart. (The veteran Blake Griffin said he avoided signing with the team, citing “dysfunction.”) On Sunday, they punched their ticket to the league Finals for the first time since 2010, when they lost to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Beginning Thursday night, the Celtics meet Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, a team trying to win its fourth, and perhaps least likely, title.
It’s a matchup few would have predicted at the beginning of the season, which speaks to the transitory feeling of the NBA right now. Two of the league’s biggest superstars, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both had nightmare years, mostly due to situations outside their control (an awful Lakers roster for LeBron, the forever-drama of Kyrie Irving and James Harden for Durant). The biggest stories for most of the year were about vaccine hesitation and (still) political debates, not basketball. There were emerging stars — Memphis’s Ja Morant, most notably, who has Allen-Iverson-but-your-mom-will-love-him-too-vibes — but the league is still a little in-between, still building the bridge between the LeBron era and whoever comes next, whether it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (already a two-time MVP winner), Ja, or someone else.
Fortunately, the NBA still has these Golden State Warriors. The Warriors’ mini-dynasty in the mid 2010s made them the most popular team in the league, and though they’re not quite the dominant force they were back then (Durant’s not around anymore, after all), they still have ever-likable Stephen Curry, the three-point king who has helped guide them back to contention, among other stars. And they’re still fun to watch and hard to dislike. It’s actually sort of surprising how beloved the Warriors are — perhaps the most roundly liked pseudo-dynasty since the Michael Jordan Bulls. Traditionally, we cheer against teams going for a fourth title in just a few years. The Tim Duncan Spurs, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, the LeBron-Wade Heat: they were the villains: We tuned in, in part, to root for them to lose.
That’s not the case for the Warriors. Curry remains the most popular player in the league outside of LeBron. His jersey has been the second-best selling for three years, and the best-selling in the three years before that; anecdotally, he remains the guy your kids are pretending to be in the backyard. And he’s surrounded by other megawatt stars, from Klay Thompson (who’s enjoying a comeback narrative this year after missing nearly two seasons with injuries), Draymond Green (who might be not only the best defensive player in the league, but the best podcaster) and Jordan Poole, a former G-League standout who might just be establishing himself as … the next Stephen Curry. That’s not to mention coach Steve Kerr, a five-time champion as a player going for his fourth title as a coach, who recently drew notice for his raw and stirring reaction to the Uvalde shooting — hardly the first time he’d spoken up politically.
It also helps that the Warriors haven’t been dominant for an uninterrupted period. After Durant left, the team briefly fell apart, thanks largely to injuries to Thompson and especially Curry. That their signature stars have reconstructed the team makes them feel less like the Empire of the LeBron Heat, and more like a group of fallen legends going for one more round of glory.
In a public-relations battle between these guys and a team from Boston, it’s no contest at all. And that’s a bit of a shame, because this Celtics team is the most likable in recent memory, a cohesive unit of talented players who clearly adore having each other as teammates. (The great Garnett-Pierce-Allen squad of the late 2000s was viewed, fairly or not, as more of an artificially constructed “superteam” than this one.) They’re led by Jayson Tatum, who would catapult into the superstar stratosphere with a title. There’s also a classic old-timer-who-has-never-won-a-title-and-now-has-his-last-chance story in Al Horford, a lovable, well-traveled vet who, if the Celtics win, might just push his way into the Basketball Hall of Fame. And Boston has an impressive head coach of their own in Ime Udoka, who in just his first year has established himself as one of the more confident courtside presences in the game. Not for nothing, Udoka is also the fiancée and longtime companion of Boyz n the Hood, Love Jones, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Nia Long. So, bonus points for that.
If they weren’t the Celtics — which is to say if they weren’t from Boston — you’d be tempted to cheer for them. But they’re the Boston Celtics, so you can’t. You get it. The Celtics don’t inspire reflexive hatred like the Patriots. They lack the we-were-once-so-tortured-that-now-our-fans-get-to-act-like-assholes-forever vibe of the Red Sox. But they still play in a city that has won way too much over the last 20 years, trading in its underdog status for cocky villainy in the process. Plus, there are just too many Boston fans with a “let’s avoid this guy at Thanksgiving” feel about them. You want to cheer for Tatum and the crew, and then you see this and … well, it’s just really hard. Maybe in a decade or so, if no Boston team has won anything between now and then, it will be permissible to cheer for one of them. Maybe. For now, Boston will serve the role of foil.
Last year, much was made of the NBA Finals featuring teams from the not-exactly-world-capital cities of Milwaukee and Phoenix, even if transcendent figures like Antetokounmpo and Chris Paul played starring roles. With LeBron and Durant out of the picture, this Finals matchup is probably the best the league could hope for: Stephen Curry and his merry Warriors going for their fourth title against a jewel NBA franchise with a roster full of players you’d totally root for if they weren’t wearing so much green. It has been a long, awkward NBA season. But Thursday, it’s wrapping up as well as anyone could have possibly hoped.