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Mike Lupica: Celtics are showing in these NBA Finals just how big a gap they have over the Knicks



There are so many ways to look at these NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Mavs, especially from here, so many good angles because of Jason Kidd and Kristaps Porzingis and The Kyrie. Here’s another angle: The Celtics didn’t already win their 18th title, because of the way they won Game 1, rolling Luka and friends the way they’ve rolled everybody else in the playoffs so far.

We’ll find out in Game 2 on Sunday night what kind of adjustments Kidd, one of the most creative basketball minds of the past quarter-century, will make; and if Kyrie Irving can have two bad games in a row; if Jaylen Brown will occasionally make Luka look as bad as he did Thursday night, to the point where you half-expected Brown to look at Luka and snarl, “You can’t cover me” the way Luka did that to poor Rudy Gobert.

Remember, please, that the Celtics were ahead of the Warriors two games to one in the NBA Finals of 2022, then never won another game. You know how it goes in short series like these, even the way the NBA ridiculously stretches them out: Life still comes at you fast.

But if you are a Knicks fan watching the Finals, and you are just focused on the Celtics for now because they happen to be the gold — and green — standard in the Eastern Conference, you are seeing with great clarity, if you didn’t see that when the Celtics were winning 64 regular-season games, that they are where the bar is set in that conference. They are the kind of complete team that the Knicks can still only aspire to be.

As tremendous as Jalen Brunson was this season, with and without Julius Randle as his wingman, and as hard as the Knicks played all the way to Game 7 when the Garden ceiling came crashing down on them, it’s also clear that the gap between them and the Celtics remains even greater than the 14 games between them in the standings when the regular season did end.

It is the Celtics going for their 18th title now, one that would put them one clear of the Lakers, and the Knicks not going for their first in more than 50 years. It is the Celtics who are deeper and more talented than any other team in the league, however the rest of the Finals play out. Boston has two core players over 30, for sure, Al Horford and Jrue Holiday. But the true core of the team are these three:

Jayson Tatum, 26.

Jaylen Brown, 27.

Porzingis, 28.

Danny Ainge is the one who began assembling this team, reimagining it after his Celtics won their last title back in 2008, when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were their Big 3. Now Brad Stevens has taken over in the front office for Boston and is trying to finish the job that Ainge started for him before he went off to Utah. It is Stevens who brought in Porzingis. Stevens essentially replaced Marcus Smart with Holiday, who quietly does so many good things from game to game you sometimes have trouble listing them all. Think of him as their Josh Hart, just with more game on offense.

The Celtics can be completely confusing, as talented as they are. They looked awful in the one playoff game they lost to the Heat and even though they swept the Pacers the way they did in the conference finals, we all saw the way they let the Pacers hang around in every one of those games, with plenty of chances to make it way more of a series than it ended up being.

But the Celtics do have a world of young talent. They do ball on defense, especially when they have to, and they had to in the third quarter Thursday night after a 28-point first-half lead was down to 72-64 after the Mavs went 29-9 on them. At that point they tightened the screws and ran away with the thing for a second time and did not suffer what would have been the worst Finals loss any Boston Garden had ever seen.

“It’s a game of runs,” Tatum said when Game 1 was over.

Then he said: “We had to respond and we did a really good job of that.”

His team ended up getting a blowout win on a night when he only shot 6-for-16. That is how deep and good the Celtics looked for most of this game. People keep trying to make this all about Tatum. Only it’s not. If you’re still stuck on that, on the notion that Tatum has to be a total star for this Celtics team to achieve their goal of another title, you’re watching the wrong movie. And on top of everything else, the Celtics got Porzingis back on Thursday night, and all he did was score 18 points off the bench in the first half and protect the rim in all the moments when Brown didn’t come flying in to do that himself on somebody like Kyrie.

“I’m glad [Porzingis] is back,” Tatum said.

Do I think Kyrie is going to shot 6-for-19 again in Game 2? I don’t. He’s done too much in these playoffs, been too much of a big-game player in the past. And as well as the Celtics largely defended Luka, and as bad as they made him look on defense, just keep in mind that what is classified as an “off” night for him finds him with 30 points and 10 rebounds when his night is over. The Mavs will try to build on the fact that they did come back from 28 down to make it a game and try to go from there. There is still the chance that these Finals won’t be just good, but truly great.

Maybe the Knicks could have gotten a game, or even two, off the Celtics if they’d managed to make it out of the second round for the first time since 2000. But they weren’t going to beat them. They still aren’t nearly as good. As much as Brunson has been for the Knicks, and as much as we all fell in love with the ‘Nova Knicks of Brunson and Hart and DiVincenzo, the Celtics’ Big 3 is better, and not by small margins.

This doesn’t mean the Knicks can’t get there, and can’t get better fast. Brunson, Hart, DiVincenzo, OG Anunoby, Randle all ended this season under the age of 30. There is a core here in place. It’s just that the core in Boston is just better. Much. The Celtics are back in the Finals. The Knicks are still stuck in the second round, as unlucky as they were with injuries. It’s why the real question Rose and the Knicks and their fans have to be asking as they watch these NBA Finals:

How do we get from here to there?

HOPING DANNY STAYS AT UCONN, INJURIES ALWAYS YANKS TOUGHEST FOE & RANGERS GOT BEAT BY BETTER TEAM …

I have known the Hurleys, out of Jersey City, for a long time.

The dad is one of the great figures high school basketball has ever known or will ever know.

Bobby went on to become one of the great point guards in college basketball history, and only saw his NBA career altered forever because he was the victim in an automobile accident one night in Sacramento.

Now Danny has become the top college coach in the country, and is coming off a second straight national title at UConn, the dominant program in America.

I want good things to continue to happen for him, and if he thinks the best thing for himself and his career is to go with the Lakers, he really should go for it.

But I can’t get the idea of what happened to Rick Pitino when he left Kentucky for the Celtics out of my head.

Is all.

I hope he stays.

P.J. Carlesimo is tremendous doing these big basketball games for ESPN Radio.

The Yankees, without question, are loaded this season.

But things can happen across a long season, you’ve probably picked up on that by now if you’re a baseball fan.

I was talking with my pal Michael Kay on his show last Wednesday and he asked what might possibly derail them, and it’s always the same thing:

Injury.

The Yankees were having one kind of season a year ago this past week, and then No. 99 went running into that door at Dodger Stadium.

And that is why everybody in Yankee Universe held their collective breath the other night when No. 22 left that game with a sore forearm.

Hey, maybe the Mets do have a chance to turn things around if they really can hit.

The only Republicans not quoted in that hackery about Joe Biden in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal the other day are dead.

The Rangers finally ran into one great, big unsolvable problem against the Panthers:

The other team was better.

Doesn’t catch up with you in sports every time.

Just most of the time.

Sometimes sports just goes right back to the old Damon Runyon line:

The race isn’t always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong — but that’s the way to bet.

You have to say that it isn’t exactly some kind of breaking-news bombshell that Robert Saleh’s job might kind of, sort of, be on the line this season.

In a few weeks I will walk through the gates of the All-England Club, on my way to write the same Wimbledon columns I was writing there as a kid for the Daily News, and will be as excited to be on the grounds, and then inside Centre Court, as I was the first time I was ever there.

And can promise you I will miss Bud Collins, who walked through the gate that first day with me like he was dropping me off at school, as much as I ever have.

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