Celtics be­come East fa­vorites

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - SPORTING GREEN - BRUCE JENK­INS

LeBron James won’t be happy about this, but he’ll have to step aside this sea­son when the Fi­nals roll around. It’s the Bos­ton Celtics’ turn — ahead of sched­ule.

The Celtics are on a 13-game win­ning streak af­ter Tues­day night’s vic­tory in Brook­lyn, and the War­riors will be in Bos­ton on Thurs­day night to get a first­hand look at what Toronto’s Kyle Lowry calls “the best team in the NBA right now.” That might be a stretch, for devo­tees of the Golden State brand, but the

su­perla­tives cer­tainly ap­ply in the Eastern Con­fer­ence.

And if it re­ally does turn out to be War­riors-Celtics in the Fi­nals, there will be hearty ap­plause from purists ev­ery­where. There couldn’t be a bet­ter matchup for show­ing young bas­ket­ball fans how the game should be played.

This isn’t a rip on James, for any such no­tion is folly. He re­mains the most com­mand­ing pres­ence in the league, some­how un­stop­pable and in­de­struc­tible as he nav­i­gates his 15th sea­son in the league. It’s just that watch­ing LeBron’s Cav­a­liers is a colos­sal drag. They will never play con­sis­tently good de­fense (in­clud­ing when­ever Isa­iah Thomas comes off the in­jured list), and their ball move­ment is cen­tered around LeBron — a com­pelling but ul­ti­mately un­sat­is­fy­ing vi­sion.

Things reached the height of ab­sur­dity Mon­day night at Madi­son Square Gar­den. For sev­eral days, the Cav­a­liers had been la­beled the worst de­fen­sive team in the league, with sev­eral re­serve play­ers call­ing out the starters for life­less per­for­mance. So what un­folded, on the grand New York stage? The Cav­a­liers came out em­bar­rass­ingly flat and trailed 73-50 in the third quar­ter. “Cav­a­liers in a stu­por!” Walt Fra­zier pro­claimed on the Knicks’ tele­cast. “Apa­thetic and pa-thetic.”

The Cav­a­liers pulled out a vic­tory be­cause LeBron and Kyle Korver (19 points in the fourth quar­ter) in­sisted on it, and be­cause the youth­ful Knicks have no idea how to close out a win. Still, the Cavs were an un­sightly mess for any­one who has watched Steve Kerr’s War­riors or Brad Stevens’ Celtics in ac­tion.

Match up Golden State with Bos­ton, and you get the two best de­fen­sive teams in the league (sta­tis­ti­cally, in the Celtics’ case; they rank No. 1). The two best at ball move­ment, with San Antonio not far be­hind. And the teams best ex­em­pli­fy­ing the mod­ern-day NBA game, all about lengthy, cat-quick wings who ex­cel on both ends of the floor, pass­ing and cut­ting and screen­ing their way to open shots while switch­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing and not giv­ing an inch of ground on de­fense.

The sur­prise in Bos­ton, even to the team’s front of­fice, is that it’s all hap­pen­ing so soon. Gen­eral man­ager Danny Ainge had an eye on the fu­ture when he gave up the No. 1 pick in the draft, trad­ing down to se­lect Jayson Ta­tum, out of Duke. Ainge seemed un­con­cerned when he wasn’t able to deal for In­di­ana’s Paul Ge­orge. Ainge be­came in­tent on trad­ing Thomas, one of the team’s most pop­u­lar play­ers of re­cent years, over con­cerns about Thomas’ health and im­pend­ing free agency. Two of the teams’ top de­fen­sive play­ers, Jae Crow­der and Avery Bradley, were lost in trade, and to top it off, prized free-agent ac­qui­si­tion Gor­don Hay­ward suf­fered a grue­some, sea­son-end­ing in­jury in the Celtics’ first game.

All of it sug­gested a wait­ing game for the Celtics, who have stock­piled a num­ber of firstround picks, un­til James ei­ther re­tires or moves to the Western Con­fer­ence. But none of that seems to mat­ter now. Not with Kyrie Irv­ing in town.

There hasn’t been a more com­plete point guard in the league at this early stage than Irv­ing, ac­quired in the Thomas deal and cur­rently wear­ing a mask to pro­tect a fa­cial frac­ture (re­mem­ber the last time Irv­ing wore a mask? Nurs­ing a frac­tured jaw, in 2012, he had a 41-point game against the Knicks). He made an aw­fully bold de­ci­sion, de­mand­ing a trade in his de­sire to es­cape Cleve­land, and had to en­dure crit­i­cism from me­dia mem­bers and from for­mer and cur­rent NBA play­ers over what ap­peared to be an en­tirely self­ish act.

“So he wants to be the whole show, away from LeBron? Good luck with that,” went the line of rea­son­ing. In re­sponse, Irv­ing told re­porters, “I’m not just this one-on-one in­di­vid­ual that wants to go iso­la­tion every sin­gle time down the floor. That’s not how I ap­pre­ci­ate the game.”

Be­hold the rev­e­la­tion: Un­der the guid­ance of Stevens, who preaches de­fense with a re­li­gious fer­vor, Irv­ing has added that long-miss­ing el­e­ment to his game, while adopt­ing a pass-first men­tal­ity and scor­ing vir­tu­ally at will — best han­dle in the league, no ques­tions asked — when the sit­u­a­tion de­mands.

“Some­times you get la­beled things,” team­mate Al Hor­ford said, “and it’s frus­trat­ing, be­cause it’s like, ‘I’m not what they’re say­ing I am.’ Kyrie is mak­ing ef­fort and hus­tle plays, he’s been tough on de­fense, and he’s our leader. I’ve just been blown away. I don’t think peo­ple re­ally un­der­stand how good he is.”

The Celtics haven’t lost a bit of their tenac­ity or team har­mony, with Irv­ing run­ning the show and two ex­cep­tional young play­ers, Ta­tum and Cal alum Jaylen Brown, quickly blos­som­ing into two-way tal­ents given huge re­spon­si­bil­ity at the end of games. It’s hard to bench some­one who not only has the po­ten­tial to score 20 points, but at­tacks the boards and as­sumes a lock­down men­tal­ity on every de­fen­sive as­sign­ment.

“It sure looks like Bos­ton is the team of the fu­ture in the East, with the as­sets that they still have and their young tal­ent and their coach­ing, and Kyrie is amaz­ing,” Kerr said af­ter prac­tice Tues­day. “That looks like a team that is go­ing to be at the top of the East for a long time to come. Whether their time is now or the fu­ture, that’s to be de­ter­mined, but they sure look like they want it to be right now. They’re re­ally sound, and they’re mo­ti­vated.

“Even with­out Gor­don Hay­ward and that aw­ful in­jury, Bos­ton is just crush­ing peo­ple. So, it’s go­ing to be re­ally fun to go against them on Thurs­day. We know how tough it’s go­ing to be.”

All of which makes Bos­ton one of the two most in­ter­est­ing sto­ries in the East — right there with a Philadel­phia team led by the sin­gu­lar tal­ents of Joel Em­biid and Ben Sim­mons. The 76ers un­veiled a wor­thy ef­fort be­fore los­ing in Oak­land on Satur­day night, mak­ing it clear that head coach Brett Brown val­ues non­stop move­ment and a self­less men­tal­ity as much as any­one in the league.

Let’s take it a step fur­ther, then: a Celtics-76ers matchup in the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals. We’ve seen LeBron, and he’s a hell of a show, but a new day is at hand.

Frank Franklin II / Associated Press

Wear­ing a mask to pro­tect a fa­cial frac­ture, Kyrie Irv­ing scored 25 points as the Celtics ex­tended their win streak to 13 by beat­ing Brook­lyn.

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