Tomase: LeBron just handed Eastern Conference to Celtics so he can get wrecked in West

John Tomase
July 01, 2018 - 11:43 pm
LeBron James and Jayson Tatum

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

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The last time the Celtics didn't have to worry about LeBron James, their roster included Vin Baker, Bimbo Coles, and Bruno Sundov. Danny Ainge was still learning his way around the Shawmut Center or whatever they were calling the Garden as the new director of basketball operations. The C's beat the Pacers in the first round before Jason Kidd's Nets broke out the broom in the conference semifinals.

That 2002-03 campaign was a long time ago. Hell -- Michael Jordan put up 20 a night for the Wizards in his NBA swan song. In the 15 ensuing postseasons, the C's crossed paths with James seven times. They won the first two series and have lost the last five, including consecutive Eastern Conference championships.

If they're to meet their playoff nemesis again, it will be in the Finals.

Sunday night's news that James had signed with the Lakers rocked the NBA to the point where ESPN just played a continuous crawl of the news like Jack Torrance scribbling about all work and no play in the Overlook Hotel.

Instant reactions centered around James' impact on the Western Conference, the return of the Lakers to their Showtime/Mamba prominence, and L.A.'s title odds jumping to 7-to-2, tying the Celtics for second in the NBA.

 But all we care about here in Boston is the impact on the C's, and let's just say it's every bit as seismic as his arrival in L.A.

Boston's path to the Finals just cleared like so many forests in Scott Pruitt's erotic dreams, and all the Celtics must do to ensure they're playing next June is traipse on through.

James' departure makes the Cavaliers a non-factor at least until they draft his kid, but maybe forever. His decision to choose the Lakers keeps him out of Philadelphia, which figured to be Boston's chief conference rival regardless. Adding James to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid could've presented all kinds of problems, especially how the Celtics would handle such overwhelming size.

Instead, James will be playing in Hollywood, where he can cameo in as many Amy Schumer movies as he likes while the Celtics set to vanquishing what's left of the East.

The domino effect could further consolidate power out West, where James now needs at least one running mate, if not two. With Paul George surprisingly off the board after agreeing to return to Oklahoma City, that increases the urgency for the Lakers to do whatever it takes to acquire disgruntled Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard.

That move would hit Philadelphia in the groin, because the Sixers want Leonard, too. But if he makes it clear he'll never sign an extension in Philadelphia, he could force his way to L.A. James has never played with a more devastating two-way threat, and that includes future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade in Miami.

The beauty of this decision is it means the Celtics have probably seen the last of LeBron in the postseason. The Warriors still loom and the rest of the Lakers roster is mediocre, no disrespect to any Big Ballers. Reaching the Finals out of the West will require outlasting the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Pelicans, and Jazz. Doing so in the East, meanwhile, will mean beating the Sixers and . . . Pacers? Bucks? Not exactly the Bad Boy Pistons.

If there's a downside, it's that the Celtics' days as plucky overachievers are officially numbered. Unless Leonard joins the Sixers -- and maybe even if he does -- the Celtics will enter the season as prohibitive favorites in the East. They'll be expected to win more than 60 games, lead wire-to-wire, and then give the Warriors a series in the Finals.

That's the kind of thinking we're allowed to indulge now that LeBron has gone Hollywood. If these Celtics ever win a title, they'll look back at their battles with James as necessary learning experiences. Consider it a gift to Jayson Tatum and Co., but not his final one.

He provided that on Sunday night when he abandoned the conference he has ruled for most of the last 15 years. The Celtics awoke this morning to a wonderful new reality -- there's no one left in the way.