Monday night's Celtics-Heat showdown is getting a lot of hype even by the recent rivalry's usual standards, don't you think? But I suppose that's inevitable when there's a irresistible natural story line like ... well, I probably don't even have to say it. You know:
Jarvis Varnado's return to the Garden.
I don't think any of us will ever forget those 4 points the 6-foot-9-inch 25-year-old forward scored in 54 seconds of playing time during the Celtics' December 30 loss to the Kings. Or the back-to-back games of making 1 of 2 free throws against the Clippers and Warriors.
His legacy was here, all five games of it. Why'd he have to go and join the Heat? Those plaintive cries of Say it ain't so, Varnado! from the rafters tonight will be hard to take.
OK, so that went on about four paragraphs too long. You know that Varnado's return to the Garden ï¿½ where he played one home game for the Celtics before being waived January 6 ï¿½ isn't a plot point, but a throwaway line in the game notes. Heck, you may not even remember Varnado, this year's version of Chris Johnson. But it is a diversion from the real story of this game, and I don't mind a diversion when the immediate reality looks pretty grim:
LeBron James is coming to town at the height of his powers and with something meaningful at stake, and that, in a current basketball sense, is utterly terrifying. As admirable as this Celtics team is right now ï¿½ they're 16-6 since the day they found out Rajon Rondo's season was over, a run that began with an emotional victory over the Heat ï¿½ I'm having a hard time conjuring up a way they can prevail against that same team tonight, especially with Kevin Garnett a game-time decision because of a left thigh injury.
The Celtics beat the Heat, 100-98 in double-overtime at the Garden on January 27. Five days later, on February 1, Miami lost to the Pacers. It has not lost since. The winning streak is at 22, tied for second-best in NBA history behind the 1971-72 Lakers' run of 33 straight victories, and you get the sense that if they get by the Celtics tonight, it's all but inevitable that LeBron, Dwyane Wade and their supporting cast catch and surpass the feat achieved by the Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and those great Lakers 41 years ago.
The Heat have won the 22 straight by an average of slightly more than 12 points per victory, and when you go on a run like that, naturally there are many contributing factors to their success. Chris Bosh is healthy and seems comfortable in his talented third-wheel role. Wade is dunking again like he's auditioning for the part of Clyde Drexler in the long-overdue feature film, "Phi Slamma Jamma.'' Ray Allen, someone who had just a few more true Garden moments than Jarvis Varnado, scored 16 in the fourth quarter Sunday night against the Raptors, and it's probably best now to forget the notion that he's a traitor and just admit that he made the right decision for him and his family.
But mostly this is about you-know-who.
Love LeBron, loathe LeBron, you absolutely have to respect LeBron, now. He not only plays basketball at a level few others on this planet have ever attained, he plays basketball the right way. He does. He plays as unselfishly as a superstar can, right up until the moment when his team needs him to take over, and then he does it with the skill and ferociousness of Jordan and Kobe. As a Celtics fan, you may not like him. As a basketball fan, you have to marvel at watching a player who may be the most talented ever and who gives the effort his gifts deserve.
There are even clues that he may actually be a robot ...
... which would make some sense given his otherworldly and essentially flawless performance during the streak, in which he's averaged 26 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game.
It just feels like leading the Heat to the all-time consecutive wins record is the next natural, ridiculous accomplishment in the progression as he builds his case as an all-time great. There is no doubt he already is one. At age 28, he's figured it all out, and it happened on our watch, dammit, with that transcendent Game 6 at the Garden last summer.
You look now and can say it was bound to happen, that LeBron's greatness would not always be suppressed in the postseason. I don't know. He misses his first four shots in Game 6, and maybe he's still battling those demons. But he hasn't looked back since, and to borrow a familiar phrase around here, anything is possible now.
It's funny, when we look back to that infamous humble little pep rally upon LeBron and Bosh joining the Heat, where the former counted off championships and Miami became the first team to celebrate a title before its core players had ever set foot on the court together, it now seems his countdown might not be too far off, though wouldn't it be delicious if he ditched Miami to go win a few with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland?
I'm sure he's not thinking about the future now, with the present being so fulfilling. I just don't know how anyone stops LeBron right now. To have a shot Monday, the Celtics need Avery Bradley to be at his best on both ends of the floor, for the good Jeff Green to show up for 35 or so minutes, for Jason Terry to outduel Allen, for KG to play, and for Paul Pierce to submit a 26-8-7 line of his own. That's a lot to ask, maybe too much, and yet it still might not be enough to defeat the Heat in their current state.
I deeply respect this Celtics team for its unselfishness and determination, for the way it has united in the absence of Rondo and, to a lesser degree, Jared Sullinger. And so maybe this is the biggest compliment I can pay LeBron: he'd fit right in here. Of course he'd fit anywhere with his ability. I mean his mindset, the will to play basketball the right way, at its highest level. His mindset is the same as Garnett and Pierce.
He's a winner now, and he'll probably be a winner for the 23d straight game tonight. Let's just hope it's not by a big enough margin that there actually is a Jarvis Varnado sighting in the final moments. It all would be too much to bear.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.