Tomase: As Celtics chase Banner 18, here's how their run is really about the Lakers


First, the Celtics must beat the brass-knuckled Heat, followed presumably by the formidable Warriors. But this improbable run toward Banner 18 is actually about another team entirely -- the Lakers.

You remember them -- Showtime, Shaq and Kobe, the LeBronaissance? For decades, the Celtics served as the Yankees or Canadiens of the NBA, the team not only in possession of the most titles, but by an absurd margin.

For Boston sports fans of a certain age, the Celtics single-handedly absolved the Red Sox, Bruins, and Patriots of their sins. The Sox hadn't won in nearly a century, the Bruins couldn't beat the Habs, and the Patriots were best known for nearly going bankrupt when Michael Jackson's hair caught on fire.

So thank god for the Celtics. From Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, to John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, to Larry Bird and the Big Three, the Celtics relentlessly reloaded, often at the expense of the Lakers, who won five titles in Minneapolis before anyone cared about basketball, and then just one despite a decade of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West.

The Celtics always stood in their way, and we loved it. When Bird raised their 16th banner in 1986, the Lakers ranked a distant second with nine. They'd certainly never close that gap in any of our lifetimes.

But Magic Johnson and Showtime took the next two championships. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal led an early-2000s three-peat. After losing to the Celtics in 2008, the Lakers claimed back-to-back crowns, the latter a seven-game slugfest of revenge over the last gasps of the new Big Three.

When the Celtics imploded in the 2020 bubble vs. the Heat, it meant they wouldn't have a chance to defend the franchise's honor. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers were basically unstoppable, anyway, and they rolled Miami in six games.

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And just like that, something unfathomable happened: the Lakers tied the Celtics with 17 titles.

We could be forgiven for glumly accepting it wouldn't stay that way for long. LeBron and AD weren't going anywhere and the Lakers opened 2021 as favorites to repeat. Instead, the Suns bounced them in the first round. And then this year unfolded like a disaster flick, with James finally showing his age, frequently showing his frustration, and for only the fourth time in his career, being shown the door and missing the playoffs entirely.

On the other side of the country, no one considered the Celtics contenders. Kyrie Irving's departure had doomed the organization to middle-class mediocrity, despite the presence of potential superstar Jayson Tatum. What franchise can lose Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier in rapid succession, replace them with a broken-down Kemba Walker, and recover?

Not the Celtics, certainly. As recently as January, they remained under .500. We spent more time examining their draft odds on Tank-A-Thon than any chance of making the playoffs. What was the point? They were cooked.

Except they weren't, not even close. They caught fire in January and now most of the NBA is burning. Behind the league's most stifling defense and a three-point bombing offense, the Celtics simply flattened their competition. They went 33-10 down the stretch, swept the Nets in the first round, and then outlasted the defending champion Bucks in seven games.

If they can stay focused for two more games and vanquish the Heat, they will return to the Finals for the first time in 12 years. And once they get there, they'll need only four wins to restore the franchise to its rightful place atop the all-time NBA hierarchy, dropping the Lakers back to second, where we can all agree they belong.

They should do it for the Cooz, who's still sharp as a tack at age 93, defending his era's honor against the insolent likes of J.J. Redick. They should do it for Russell, the greatest champion in the history of team sports. They should do it for the legends we've lost in the last five years alone, from Havlicek to Sam Jones to K.C. Jones to our very own Tommy Heinsohn, who'd be loving the hell out of this while imploring Tatum and Co. to "GET OUT AND RUN!" They should do it for Bird and Chief and certainly Danny Ainge, who built the majority of the current roster.

The post-Bird years were some of the worst in the franchise's history, a dark age that lasted three decades before Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen joined forces. That group was never destined to win more than one or two, though, convening as they did in their respective 30s.

This group is different. This one is just getting started. Outside of 35-year-old Al Horford, the oldest regular is 28-year-old defensive player of the year Marcus Smart. Tatum is only 24. Fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown is 25. Defensive Swiss army knife Robert Williams is 24. Grant Williams is 23.

We could legitimately be looking at the birth of the NBA's next mini-dynasty that should once again make Boston a destination. The Lakers, meanwhile, are in crisis. They need a new coach, James turns 38 in December, the Russell Westbrook experiment failed miserably, and Davis is rumored to be traded to half the teams in the league.

It's possible the Celtics are preparing to put some real distance between themselves and the Lakers in the title department over the next few years, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.

The first order of business is raising Banner 18 and breaking that tie.

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