CLEVELAND — Any parent endeavoring to teach a child anything would prefer to control the conditions. Take swimming, for instance. It's probably better not to toss the kid into the raging rapids, but rather on the shallow end of a still, heated pool, armed with water wings and kickboard, watched by a litany of lifeguards.
Seems just a bit safer that way.
Ideally, every NBA team would prefer to control the conditions for its own "kids," those who have never had the opportunity to dip a toe, let alone start a stroke, in playoff waters, who may need some time to merely learn to float. Ideally, every team would want those waters to be as calm as those Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love found in Sunday's 113-100 victory—those they will continue to find in this series against a team incapable of more than a ripple.
There was so much worry about how Love and Irving would handle their first playoff experience, so much so that their performances Sunday are likely to cause an equal and opposite overreaction, a declaration that they're ready for just about anything that comes out of the playoff pipe.
Irving, after all, had 20 of his 30 points by halftime, and Love, after missing his first four shots, settled in enough to finish with 19 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two charges taken. Their overall stat lines were at least equal to what LeBron James (20 points, six rebounds, seven assists) produced.
"I thought they were phenomenal," James said. "It started with Ky, he's our floor general. He set the tone early on with his ability to make shots, his ability to get in the lane. Obviously, he can shoot the ball extremely well, he's able to mix it up. I thought he was phenomenal.
"Even with Kev's shot not falling early, I felt it was just the rhythm that he was in, the aggressiveness that he was in, would pay off later for us. And he turned it around in the second half. He was very aggressive, getting the ball where he wanted, getting the touches where he wanted. When Kev shoots eight free throws, that lets me know he's very aggressive."
So, certainly, there were some positive signs that the "parent" in this scenario (James) approved of what his "kids" were doing. There were signs on the court, where James, feeling out a series as he typically does, made a point to keep getting Love touches while often staying out of the electric Irving's way.
And there were signs on the podium, where the trio shared a few jokes while sharing that stage for the first time as teammates, something James frequently did with Dwyane Wade (and sometimes with Chris Bosh) in their first season together in Miami. Love was the only one of the three who wasn't given an NBA TV microphone. That could have been taken as symbolism of this season. Instead, Love playfully took it in stride.
Still, there should also be some restraint, a recognition of the inevitability of this series, the modest intensity relative to later rounds (at times Sunday, it felt like February) and the how-did-they-get-here opponent. The guys in green have some youth and spunk and no one who would currently be better than a seventh man in a Western Conference playoff rotation. Their real rising star (Brad Stevens) wears a suit on the sideline, and their true champion (Danny Ainge) is in the front office, counting his draft picks.
All of this makes the Celtics the perfect sparring partner, prepping the Cavaliers for what's to come (one example: Isaiah Thomas' speed resembling that of a healthy Derrick Rose), with the slightest chance of eliminating them. They can make some runs, such as a 14-0 stretch in Sunday's third quarter, but this series will still ultimately look like a walkover.
After all, Boston can't even come close to claiming the one edge on Cleveland that was seen as the Cavaliers' primary concern: big-game experience for core players.
No, Love and Irving hadn't played in the playoffs. But Love did play in a Final Four, and he's won gold medals in the FIBA World Championship (2010) and the Olympics (2012); Irving was the 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP. None of the current Celtics have experienced any of that.
Love and Irving have played in a combined six All-Star games, with Irving once winning MVP. And while fans see that as a not-so-serious exhibition, there is still pressure on players to perform for top-level peers—at the very least, not to look lost or unworthy. No current Celtics, other than Gerald Wallace, have come close to All-Star status. Plus, Wallace, who played in the 2010 game, was the only active Celtic who didn't play a minute Sunday.
Love was the fifth overall pick in 2008; Irving was the first in 2011.
Other than Evan Turner, taken second in 2010, and Marcus Smart, taken sixth overall last June, no Celtic was drafted higher than 13th by Boston (Kelly Olynyk). No Celtic entered Sunday with more than 31 playoff starts (Brandon Bass); Avery Bradley is second with 16.
On the Cleveland side, James came in with 158 starts, and had a 37-7 record in the first round, including 16-2 over the past four postseasons. J.R. Smith had never started, but he'd made 51 appearances and served as the sixth man in a Western Conference Finals.
James Jones, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and Kendrick Perkins—who took the team out on the floor by telling them to play together "for the name on the front of the chest"—had made 431 playoffs appearances. Though those four would combine to play just 16 minutes (15 solid ones from Jones), all were available to play the lifeguard role if Irving or Love started flailing or sinking, to dive in and soothe them to safety.
James has repeatedly stated that he didn't know what to expect from Love and Irving in the playoffs, even if he had the highest hopes. Both played along in their pupil roles Sunday, showing the postseason the proper respect. Love spoke of "a little bit of just anxiousness." Irving said he felt how "every possession matters," and that he was glad to get "Game 1 out of the way, all the nerves, just coming out aggressive" so now he can watch film and improve. This, too, was in line with the way James views each postseason series.
"The first game is always a feel-out game and see how a team is going to play you both individually and as a team," James said. "We see what type of pace this team plays with. When Isaiah Thomas comes into the game, the pace goes up even higher. There's a lot of things we will watch on film tomorrow at practice and see what we can do better going into Game 2. But I think our first today we did a great job. Just go out and play. You don't want to get too much into adjustments. You want to go out and just play and feel the game and see what happens."
Irving and Love got their feet and legs wet Sunday in comfortable, controlled conditions, in the shallow, still end of the Eastern Conference playoff pool.
"Those two guys, they succeeded, for their first time being in the postseason," James said.
But as James well knows, the water will eventually rise and rage—in this case, as soon as the Celtics fall. The water wings will come off, the kickboards will drift away. That's when we'll see who sinks and who swims.