BOSTON — Seconds after J. R. Smith ran down the long rebound of a missed jumper from the deep left corner and nailed one from the opposite side, Cedric Maxwell rose from his broadcasting seat and made eye contact with a familiar reporter from his days as a valued piece of two Boston Celtics championship teams in the Larry Bird era of the early to mid-1980s.
Smith’s 20-footer had fallen at the halftime buzzer, pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ lead over the Celtics from 39 to 41, a margin that would grow to 50 before the merciful conclusion of a 130-86 annihilation Friday night in Game 2 of an equally lopsided Eastern Conference finals.
Maxwell knows hopeless when he sees it.
“What do you write about that?” he said, shaking his head.
Good question. Fortunately, minutes after both teams retired to their locker rooms for postgame coaches’ sermons, Geno Auriemma appeared.
From a room in the bowels of TD Garden, where the Celtics had been hammered at home for a second time to fall into an 0-2 series ditch, Auriemma emerged to quip that someone from the Boston side had just suggested that they had witnessed an N.B.A. version of a Connecticut women’s game.
Auriemma, the architect and coach of that historic UConn program, said the guy had mournfully told him, “Connecticut versus M.I.T.”
Interesting that such a comparison would be made in Boston, of all cities, because it was a local sports commentator, as Auriemma recalled, who took issue with a similar beatdown by Connecticut of Mississippi State in the 2016 N.C.A.A. tournament. Dan Shaughnessy, a longtime columnist for The Boston Globe, wrote of the Huskies in a post on Twitter, “Hate to punish them for being great, but they are killing women’s game.”
Auriemma naturally took offense, but a similar debate, though not quite in the same dismissive tone, now roils the N.B.A.
As the most blowout-laden N.B.A. postseason in memory — and perhaps ever — lumbers on, we have to ask: Are LeBron James and the Cavaliers, along with the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference, killing men’s basketball? Or are they merely destroying the overmatched competition, along with the television ratings for a full season of preliminary playoff rounds?
Auriemma, who recognizes and appreciates such dominance, would argue that what is happening this spring is only cyclical and a mark of greatness to be celebrated.
“Unbelievable,” he said after watching James at his best: 30 points on 12 of 18 shooting, plus 7 assists, in 33 minutes. And Auriemma, like everyone else, knew those numbers failed to convey the dominance, orchestration and casually executed methodology that often make James look like a counselor among campers.
“We’re not scared of Cleveland,” the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas had said before struggling through a 2-point first half and sitting out the second with a hip strain suffered in the Washington series. “They’re not Monstars on ‘Space Jam.’ They lace up their shoes just like us.”
Lost in the cartoon commentary was the result of the climactic showdown in that 1996 part-animated box office smash: Michael Jordan and his Looney Tunes teammates stretching life and limbs to steal the show, just like James running down the fast-breaking Warriors’ Andre Iguodala to swat away a last-minute layup and save Game 7 of last season’s epic finals.
Defenders of the Jordan generation continue to invent ways to discredit the enormousness of what James — now two victories away from a seventh straight finals appearance, and an eighth over all in 14 N.B.A. seasons — is achieving. Enough already. They want to cherry-pick a season or two when James hasn’t been challenged through the three conference rounds? Fine.
After Jordan’s Chicago Bulls supplanted the two-time champion Detroit Pistons as the best team in the East, which opponent from among the 1990s Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat reminded anyone of the aforementioned Monstars?
Name a team that Jordan and the Bulls beat in the league finals — surely not the Kareem-less Los Angeles Lakers in 1991 — as good as the 73-win Warriors of last season and the (eventual) five-time champion San Antonio Spurs, vanquished by James, then with Miami, in 2013.
It’s time to admit that James has reached the same celestial level as Jordan, whipping himself into a competitive frenzy with slights real and imagined — the latest being his exclusion from one of 100 ballots in the first-team all-N.B.A. voting and from being among the three finalists chosen for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.
“It becomes, what can I do, where can I find that motivation?” said the veteran Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson. Just like Mike.
Obviously, these playoffs, and especially the conference finals, are not a good look for the N.B.A., even if a looming Cavs-Warriors series figures to captivate the sport’s global fan base in June. But the popular narrative of the Cavs and Warriors as superteams loading up on free-agent talent and bludgeoning the league’s competitive balance is built on a misleading or altogether false premise.
The Warriors won a title and then 73 games before adding Kevin Durant and probably would be finals-bound without him. James’s return to Cleveland made him the most unorthodox free agent catch in league history, while the Cavs’ other stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were acquired via the draft and a trade.
The idea that their success has been artificially engineered in conjunction with a league-ruinous trend is as bogus as the claim that the Connecticut women’s dominance is all because of Auriemma’s metronomic recruitment of the best players.
Why not commend the triumphant, he asked, instead of demeaning the vanquished?
Auriemma wondered after that Mississippi State blowout last year why people didn’t complain when Tiger Woods ruled golf, major after major, raising the competitive bar.
“He made everybody have to be a better golfer,” Auriemma said then.
Late Friday night, he reminded us that it was the same Mississippi State that snapped Connecticut’s 111-game win streak this year in the N.C.A.A. semifinals.
“We made them a better team,” he said.
Could it be that the N.B.A.’s competitive bar has been raised, not lowered? Who will take on the challenge, become the Mississippi State of the East and the West?