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Confronting Past Demons in the NBA Playoffs


I get why there’s not a whole lot of excitement over the Cavaliers’ first-round playoff series with Boston.
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Since LeBron James returned last July, and even through the rickety first half of the season, making the playoffs was a foregone conclusion. So a first-round series in which the Cavs are a heavy favorite won’t get people to stop talking about the Browns uniforms.

But the Cavs drawing the Celtics at the last minute - after weeks of everything pointing to Indiana, Brooklyn, or Miami filling that slot - just might turn out to be a very quiet, but very powerful omen foreshadowing what’s to come.

If you look back through the history of the Cavs, each era is clearly separated - like one of those plastic tab dividers you put into your eighth-grade algebra binder. And each of those dividers is a playoff series with the Boston Celtics.

There was the ’76 conference finals during the Miracle of Richfield run, which many feel was still the Cavs’ best shot at a world title before Jim Chones broke his foot. The 1985 first-round series - while a quick exit for the eighth-seeded Cavs - served as both a triumph of recovering from a 2-19 start and a clean break ending the miserable Ted Stepien reign.

The only satisfying postseason experience in the Price-Daughtery-Wilkens era included a terrific seven-game conference semifinal triumph over Boston that also ended Larry Bird’s career. Then there was the bloody 2008 conference semifinal in which Boston’s Big Three barely escaped an overmatched Cavs squad. The Celtics sailed on to a world title, while the Cavs saw exactly what they needed to do to become a title contender - which, over the next two years, they did.

And of course, the final example is, not coincidentally, the last time the Cavs were in the playoffs: the nightmarish six-game loss to the Celtics five years ago that remains one of the ugliest chapters in Cleveland sports history. 

Now the Cavs will pick up where they left off.

The point isn’t necessarily how great it is to add a new episode to this interesting playoff rivalry, but rather that it has a very welcome sense of destiny to it.

If the Cavs are going to do something epic this spring, doesn’t it feel right that they should do so by slaying the dragons of their past? That they’ll only be able to achieve their destiny by exorcising their ghosts?

You could argue that the Celtics have thwarted three very realistic chances of the Cavs winning a world title. Of course, this year’s Celtics team is nowhere close to as good as those other three, but they carry the same flag and bring with them that history.

Not that any of the current Cavs players really care about any of this. LeBron may have memories of 2008 and 2010, but these guys weren’t even alive in 1976. And the fans may not necessarily need it either, though it adds some meaning to an otherwise ho-hum first-round series.

So take it or leave it, and I wouldn’t blame you for leaving it.

But guess who, after some last-minute jockeying for position, the Cavs will likely play in the conference semifinals?

The Chicago Bulls. 

Also known as the team that has knocked Cleveland out of the postseason more than any other, including - like the Celtics - pulling the plug on a trio of terrific Cavs squads that could very well have won the whole damn thing. 

It wouldn’t appear there’s a whole lot of Shakesperean drama baked into a potential Cleveland-Atlanta conference final (if it happens). But give us a few weeks and I’m sure we can come up with something.

And don’t you just get the feeling that if - again, that’s “if” with a capital “I” and capital “F” - the Cavs were to make it to the Finals, that the San Antonio Spurs would be there waiting for them?

The same team that effortlessly dusted the Cavs in their only previous trip to the Finals in 2007. And the same team that made LeBron look impotent last June, perhaps sealing his decision to return to Cleveland.

This all may be pure silliness. But if and when a Cleveland team wins a world championship, it will be a mythological experience (and even if it isn’t, we’ll turn it into one shortly after). So does it not then make sense for the Yellow Brick Road leading there to be soaked in myth and meaning?

It’s like therapy following a tragedy - you can only get better by confronting and conquering your past.
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