If I am being honest with myself, I probably do not love beautiful basketball as much as I’ve convinced myself I do over the past handful of my adult years. Of course, what registers as beautiful is subjective, but in this instance, I am talking specifically about the kind of fluidity of off-ball movement offered by a team like the Golden State Warriors, where it can look as if each player is an instrument in a tightly conducted orchestra, weaving in and out of tight windows of space and racing for a slightly larger window of space.
And though he has been much maligned since Luka Doncic sent his crew packing back to the dry heat of the valley, there is beauty, too, in the way Chris Paul has — at his best — perfected the patient vision required of the point guard who, truly, has the best interest of his teammates in mind. A beauty that also comes to life in young Darius Garland, who will sometimes seemingly wander with the ball, back and forth along a baseline or from wing to wing, simply because the best point guards know the small sliver of difference between the play you can get and the play you must get, and one is worth waiting for if you can hold out.
So, of course, I appreciate the nuances of beauty within the game. The things that some might call poetic. But rarely lauded are the poetics of brutality that exist within basketball, specifically playoff basketball. The nature of a series that drags on, two teams full of players who are sick to death of one another, but both sides have to keep pushing up against the same exit, some nights with significantly more ferocity than the others.
Enter Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. This entire run of playoff games hasn’t exactly been thrilling. And while I do think this year has been, mostly, uniquely bland, it also bears mentioning that those of us who watch have maybe been spoiled in recent years. Haphazard and chaotic as they were, the bubble playoffs were teeming with excitement — in part, I’m sure, because they offered a brief respite from the ever-growing cracks in the façade of empire. But also, there was real excitement in the series:
Donovan Mitchell vs. Jamal Murray! Doncic vs. … well, all of the Clippers! The Clippers collapsing against the Nuggets! Jimmy Butler dragging Miami as far as he could, half-collapsed and exhausted in the process!
Last season’s playoffs gave us the Trae Young Playoff Run and the Ben Simmons Downfall, both of those enough on their own to satiate even the most narrative-driven sports fan. And even beyond that, the Finals offered no shortage of signature Giannis moments.
As it stands right now, Celtics-Heat is the only competitive series left. We’ve gotten the sloppy but sometimes entertaining series with two young teams, we’ve gotten the series in which one of those young teams doesn’t back down from the more skilled veterans. We’ve gotten enough coaches complaining about fouls and questioning the intentions of opponents. The Mavericks, one of the better stories of the playoffs, won Game 4 but have spent most of their series against the Warriors looking entirely bewildered, and it might have been merciful had the Warriors ended the Mavs’ misery in four games.
But in the East, there is a series that is wholly unattractive, and yet still engaging. The Celtics and Heat have been trading moments of dominance that haven’t always been sustained for a full four quarters. Runs and long stretches of not scoring are occasionally punctuated with a frantic rush of sloppy scoring near the end of a game. These are the kind of games that are easy to tune out of early, or late, particularly with an 8:30 p.m. starting time on the East Coast, and those of us trending toward Elderly Millennial and beyond, yawning while glancing at our watches.
But I have loved every minute of this mostly messy, plodding series. It does help that Miami and Boston are two teams extremely equipped for this type of battle. Much is made of the mythology of Miami’s toughness, who they might or might not theoretically fight when given the opportunity. But that nonsense aside, Miami is a team that endures, partially, by figuring out how to outlast an opponent. An issue here is the Celtics are an especially challenging team to outlast. This, I think, is why the series has swayed so much from game to game, almost like each game is a full round of a boxing match in which one fighter is exhausted from the previous round and just trying to stay upright.
I’m not saying I’m excited watching the Heat score a single point for several minutes, or watching the Celtics fumble away a series of costly turnovers. I like Bam Adebayo a great deal, which is why watching him suffer through incredibly uneven play is an added bit of agony. Normally reliable shooters are off, fouls are hard and injuries pile up mid-game. Players go to the locker room and then emerge. No matter the actual runtime of the games, all of them have felt nearly infinite. But I’m excited about the buildup of such a series, one that seems destined for a Game 7, filled with haymakers.
I came up loving ugly Eastern Conference basketball, which doesn’t necessarily mean I came up loving bad basketball. Ugly basketball isn’t always bad, and bad basketball certainly isn’t always ugly (I’m a Timberwolves fan, and so I’ve seen more than a lifetime’s worth of basketball that is both bad and ugly.) When people romanticize the ’80s and ’90s in the NBA, the talk often turns toward fantasies of a more violent game, when guards would drift into the lane and pay a price in blood or bruise. But that underscores what I loved most about that era, which was less about the on-court play and more about two teams that did not particularly like each other (even in the regular season) figuring out the math of how to triumph and leave nothing behind. I liked how exhausted Patrick Ewing always looked in games, with rivers of sweat as the evidence of his labor. This is a failure of my youthful imagination but rare exceptions aside (Penny Hardaway comes to mind), I never liked players who made the game look easy.
I find myself newly rooting for the Celtics, in part, because Jayson Tatum is, for me, the rare player who can make the work look both easy and challenging, all at once. To guard Tatum one-on-one is to be trapped in a seemingly endless tunnel of moves, some of them more effective than others, but all of them appearing simultaneously smooth and immensely laborious. When he’s on, he is impossible and when he’s off, he is equally impossible. I gravitate toward players like Tatum, who are least appealing on offense in the in-between. I don’t care much for a “pretty good” Tatum game. I prefer the ones where he either appears to be in orbit, entire solar systems beyond anyone who dares to challenge him, or the ones where he is way off, puzzled by his own struggles but still firing away.
The Celtics also appeal to me because of how rigorously they’ve worked against the foolishly invented narratives that fill the otherwise dead air of the networks, primarily the narrative that suggests if a team has two talented young players, those players should be split up. This narrative is especially baffling to me because it rarely seems to be rooted in much. This is the most successful on-court iteration of the Celtics in the Tatum-Jaylen Brown era, but it is this way because the two have had time together, because they’ve gone through various versions of Celtics basketball and find themselves, now, solely at the forefront of its next evolution. To pull two talented players apart because they are perceived to be failing in some way does not account for the reality that those failures are required to get to whatever successes might rest on the other side of them. This has proven to be especially fundamental through the Celtics’ run in the playoffs this year, and in this series — Tatum and Brown have, in most cases, figured out how to provide when the other is down, even if providing doesn’t come only by way of getting buckets.
And still, who is to say.
What makes this series especially great and especially exhausting is that it is a series of virtually no prolonged momentum. There are in-game bursts, of course. But nothing seems to carry over from one game to the next. Each new tipoff, it’s like both teams have had their memories wiped of each other, and they spend the first act of the game figuring out how to play again. Which, I suspect, has led to the lopsided first-quarter performances in all games beyond Game 1.
I suspect this series will end with a flourish, but in order for that flourish to pay off, I am sorry to say that we have to endure this part. The part of it that mostly looks like immense and ugly work with small splashes of beauty decorating the massive and heavy wall that both teams are pushing against. Though I admit, I am a sucker for a narrative. And a narrative doesn’t have to always be beautiful, it just needs to be effective enough to keep my attention, promising an eventual payoff. There are many ways this series is decidedly not a throwback to the days of brawling, intense matches that felt like walking through slowly accumulating quicksand. But it wears the costume well. It at least looks like hard work, even when it isn’t necessarily entertaining. That’s enough to keep me around until it gets really good.