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The Bad Vibes and Bad Luck Following Cleveland Out of Boston

The outcome of Sunday's extra-chippy, ultraviolent Game 4 between the Cavaliers and Celtics was never really in doubt. The question is how the hangover plays out.
Photo by Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Sweep games have a strange energy. The dominant team plays with the drowsy effort of someone washing a few dishes late at night, mentally already long in bed; the nearly vanquished one either slumps toward oblivion or rages against the dying of the light. It was clear heading into Sunday afternoon which type of doomed squad the Boston Celtics would be, given that they're playoff interns more than bona fide participants. They showed up for the opening round, the conventional wisdom goes, to bank some experience that will serve them well when they're ready to make a deep postseason run in the future. They don't fear death; they were going to try like hell to stretch the series to five games because fuck you, that's why.


But there's going all out, and there's barbarism. Kelly Olynyk skirted the line between the two as he tried to pull Kevin Love away from a first quarter rebound and ended up pulling Kevin Love's left arm away from the rest of his body. He did so with a yank that could be read as malicious verging on criminal or simply overzealous, depending on where you're standing. Regardless of Olynyk's intent, the result of the play was Love jogging briskly to the locker room and the game devolving into a series of hard fouls, outright dirty plays, and one notably Street Fighter-esque backfist. It never boiled over into anything approaching a vintage Heat-Knicks-style rumble, but uneasiness pervaded.

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Kendrick Perkins flashed his lone remaining NBA skill when he meted out tuff justice, knocking Jae Crowder on his ass in the second quarter. (One imagines Perk consults some handwritten handbook containing a made-up honor code in such situations.) J.R. Smith lost his temper in the third and caught Crowder with a wild backhand that caused the Celtics forward to suffer a knee-spraining fall. As Crowder was being helped down the tunnel by his teammates, ABC only partially bleeped him. "That's fucked up," he could sort of be heard saying. It was.

Once everyone had showered and calmed themselves, both sides' remarks to reporters—Love's understandably aggrieved accusation aside—smacked lamely of unequivocating sports bro assertiveness. Players puffed out their chests, canted their heads masculinely, and explained What Playoff Basketball Is About and how We're All Men Out Here in a manner characteristic of the most steak-headed linebackers.


Oh, is this a foul, now? Trying to smash someone flat with your ass is a foul in today's NBA? — Photo by David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps no one saw any practical use to acknowledging the ugliness of the contest, but Crowder had it right. What happened was fucked up. The Cavs wanted a 48-minute kneel-down and the Celtics wanted to scrap some more. What resulted was a tilt that left each team battered and upset.

The obvious, crucial difference between the squads is that Crowder can heal on his own time, in what has now become his team's offseason, and Love is going to struggle to get healthy before his colleagues crash out of the playoffs. Even best-case dislocated shoulders keep players sidelined for about two weeks; the aftereffects from particularly nasty ones can linger for months. As maligned as Love has been, the Cavs can't win a title without him. They might not even be able to defeat Chicago's phalanx of big men in the second round, especially since Smith is bound to a miss a game or two through suspension. Love says he intends to play in the postseason again, but that's up to his body and his teammates now. All he can do is watch.

There's no problem to be solved here or any satisfactory explanation to be provided. That's just playoff basketball is a stupid response to players injuring one another due either to malice or recklessness, but a more considered take wouldn't make Kevin Love's shoulder or Jae Crowder's knee heal more swiftly. Beautiful and broadly fair game that it is, basketball is vulnerable to goonery and out-of-the-sky cosmic dickpunches. Shit just breaks sometimes.

Apparently, the most a team can do when struck down by entropy is bully and flail at their tormentors—to enact eye-for-an-eye violence. It's not much consolation, but the anxiety that abounds is temporarily blotted out by the feeling of Setting Things Right. With that righteousness no longer flowing, the Cavs are heading into a nearly week-long spell of rest in which they must confront what has been lost and what can be salvaged. Whether they say so or not, they will soon understand the full ugliness of the game they played on Sunday afternoon. It might be too much to overcome.