LeBron skips the Celtics

LeBron skips the Celtics
March 20, 2014, 2:00 pm
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The Celtics picked up a nice win last night against the Miami Heat, but there was one little piece missing from the Miami attack. That would be four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, who was scratched at the last second with back spasms. Prior to the announcement, his status for the game was never in question. There hadn’t been reports of James dealing with back spasms since November, and even then he didn’t miss a game.
 
But last night he did, and you can understand why. The Heat were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and the previous night James had scored 43 points in 42 minutes against the Cavs. He was probably tired. His back was probably a little sore. And you know, the Celtics are the Celtics. LeBron probably figured: “OK, so we’re about to hit the homestretch. We’re only three games behind Indiana for the top seed. This is a good chance to catch my breath, let my teammates beat up on Boston and then I’ll hit the ground running on Friday.”
 
Of course, that’s not how it played out. LeBron’s absence led to a Miami loss. And with Indiana losing to the Knicks, the Heat missed a chance to gain important ground. But you know what? Who cares about Miami? That’s not why I’m talking about LeBron missing the game.  
 
The real reason is that last night was LeBron’s only trip to Boston. Which means that the Garden was full of families who spent hard earned money to take their kids to see The King. And you know those kids had been looking forward to this game all season. For every older and jaded NBA fan who hates LeBron for whatever reason, there are so many younger fans that idolize the guy. Even in Boston. Kids who probably couldn’t sleep the night before, knowing they were so close to seeing their hero in the flesh. Don’t you remember what that was like? I do. I still remember March 1, 1996, when I spent months looking forward to seeing Shawn Kemp play the Celtics, only to see him leave the game with an injury after 11 minutes. That stuff sticks with you.
 
I was miserable. But at least I saw him for a little. At least there was a little more legitimacy to that injury. And listen, I’m not saying LeBron completely faked those back spasms. I don’t know. But I do know that he would have played had that game taken place in Indiana or New York or Oklahoma City. Certainly if it was on national TV. The truth is that Celtics fans missed out. They got ripped off. And that’s a problem. Especially since the same thing happened back in January with Kevin Durant, who missed his only trip to Boston with a shoulder injury.
 
Imagine it’s this past Christmas morning, and some young NBA fan opens his best and biggest present: Tickets to see LeBron James and Kevin Durant play the Celtics. That’s an NBA kid’s dream. A few months later, that dream was completely crushed. That present (worth hundreds of dollars) was a waste. Is that an investment those parents — or any parents who took their kids last night — will be ready to make again? I don’t know, but you’d understand if they thought twice. And that’s a problem.
 
So, how do we fix it?
 
That’s the hard part. It’s not like you can fine LeBron for skipping out on last night’s game. It’s one thing to fine Gregg Popovich for resting his entire starting line-up on national TV. In this case, short of wire-tap of LeBron saying: “Man, screw Boston. Let’s just say I’ve got back spasms and call it a night.” There’s nothing you can do. Actually, that’s not true. I guess you could have a league-sanctioned doctor at every game to determine whether these guys are fit to play, but something tells me that won’t turn out too well.
 
In a perfect world, every team would also visit every arena more than once a year, but this world isn’t perfect. That would take extending an already too long season. And anyway, once a year is better than most leagues do it. Adrian Peterson’s played one game in Foxboro in seven years. Aaron Rodgers has never played at Gillette. And considering that this season’s Pats/Packers game will take place at Lambeau, there’s a chance he never will.
 
But football and basketball are different. The NBA fan experience is so much different that anything else. You’re so close. They’re not wearing helmets or hats. It personal. You see them and they see you. It’s worth it for those young fans. It can be a life-changing experience.
 
Or an enormous let down.
 
And last night was exactly that. Sure, it was great to see the Celtics win, but hey, that’s nothing special. Not even this year. They’ve won plenty of games. And those wins don't even mean anything. At this point, they're a detriment. But there was only one chance to see LeBron, and it wasn’t worth it for him to play. I wish he had. But in the big picture, all things equal, it’s hard to criticize him. You can understand why, with all he has on the line, it would make sense to rest against a team like the Celtics. That’s unfortunately who they are right now. And it’s not up to LeBron to change that. It’s not up to the league. It’s up to the Celtics.
 
At the end of the day, the only thing they can do is once again become that team that opponents can’t afford to rest on. A game that other teams know they have to be at their best for. Games that are on National TV. Where the lights are brightest and stakes are highest.
 
The Celts are on the road to getting back there, but they’re not close yet, and here’s one thing to maybe help expedite the process —
 
More losses.
 
Now don’t get me wrong. Last night was great. It’s always fun to beat the Heat, regardless of who’s out there. No doubt all the fans had a good time. But that win also dropped Boston from fourth to sixth in the lottery standings. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s the difference between having a 37.8 percent chance at a Top 3 pick and 21.5 percent chance. That’s significant. Meanwhile, they’re only a game and a half in front of Sacramento for the seventh spot. Only three games in front of Detroit for the eighth. Once you’re down there, you’ve got a 10 percent chance of landing in the Top 3.
 
From 37.8 percent to 10 percent.
 
So yeah, the Celtics picked up a nice win last night.
 
But it might also be nice if it’s their last.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine