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McDavid is hockey's superstar. Will a Stanley Cup finally elevate his status in America?

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McDavid is hockey's superstar. Will a Stanley Cup finally elevate his status in America?

The 2024 Stanley Cup Final has the potential to be magical, and it’s largely because of Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.

McDavid is the greatest player of his era. He’s at or near the zenith of his powers, and in his ninth season, he’s finally competing for his first NHL championship.

The Florida Panthers are the only thing left between him and the Stanley Cup.

“This year you’ve got the best player in the game, a player that can do things that other people can’t, and you have a series that I don’t think anybody thinks is a short series,” ESPN analyst and former NHLer Ray Ferraro said. “It’s really important and really cool that Connor gets to play in his first final.”

McDavid going for his first title should have the same intrigue as LeBron James’ first appearance in the NBA Finals. McDavid is hockey’s LeBron in terms of making good on his phenom potential.

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Yet for all of McDavid’s impressive resume and impeccable skills, it doesn’t seem to stack up. In fact, McDavid’s first trip to the final might not even compare in the United States to Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby reaching that stage.

“With Gretzky, you had a smaller league and the aftermath of the World Hockey Association — and then the merger. With Sidney Crosby, he played for a franchise that was either No. 1 or No. 2 in terms of regional television audiences in the United States on an annual basis,” said Tom Mayenknecht, a sports business commentator and host of the Sports Market. “Then there was the almost Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa-type bouncing back from the lost season. Crosby was part of that context (with Alex Ovechkin). He was a big hope to get people past that.

“And LeBron James was basketball. He had high-school hype.”

Mayenknecht said McDavid is still the most recognizable player across the NHL.

Hardcore hockey fans will be watching him in the Stanley Cup Final, and the McDavid narrative should be enough to interest casual fans.

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Will it, though?

As McDavid prepares to play for the championship, viewers who rarely watch hockey need to understand what makes him so special.

“For the casual hockey fan clicking around on this Saturday night or during the series, we have to do a good job of making sure we introduce Connor McDavid … and not just assume that everybody knows everything there is to know about Connor McDavid,” ESPN senior vice president of production and remote events Mark Gross said.


Aside from perhaps Crosby, McDavid was the most-hyped prospect in the sport since Eric Lindros. Though Lindros’ brute strength made him a man playing amongst boys, McDavid’s sublime talent put him several cuts above his junior hockey peers.

McDavid was touted as one of the most graceful and fastest skaters ever before he even entered the NHL.

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There was never a question he’d be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. Teams tanked, and tanked hard, to secure the best odds to land him.

When the Oilers won the draft lottery, moving up two spots to leapfrog Buffalo and Arizona, then-Sabres GM Tim Murray couldn’t hide his disappointment that he missed out on the chance to select McDavid.

Murray’s emotions have turned out to be justified. McDavid won the scoring title and league MVP in his second season. He’s won five Art Ross and three Hart trophies in his nine seasons. He’s already one of the greatest players ever — and he’s backed it up in the postseason.

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His 1.58 playoff points per game over his career is the best production rate of anyone not named Gretzky or Mario Lemieux — whose best years were in hockey’s most offensive era. The goal he scored in the clinching game of the Western Conference final, where he made one of the NHL’s best defensemen, Miro Heiskanen, look foolish, was a thing of beauty.

“That should be on everywhere there’s an NHL highlight,” Ferraro said. “In the NHL, there is one player that can score that goal. There’s one player. That’s it. It’s special.”

McDavid is like a god in Edmonton — one of his nicknames is McJesus — and he’s one of the most well-known people in Canada.

That applies in the United States, too, to some extent.

“Any hockey fan in the U.S. who follows hockey closely knows who Connor McDavid is already,” Oilers CEO of hockey operations Jeff Jackson said. “I’ve had the chance to sit at MSG or in Tampa or other places, and you watch the crowd. They all get on the edge of their seat when he touches the puck just like they do in Edmonton.”

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But those attending games are mostly hockey fans and usually hardcore ones at that. McDavid’s appeal in the United States beyond those invested in the sport isn’t remotely the same.

That McDavid plays in Edmonton, one of the smallest markets and the most-northern-based team in North American pro sports, doesn’t help.

“There’s no question that if he was playing in an American market that he’d be an even bigger name among American hockey fans and American sports fans,” Mayenknecht said.

The NFL and NBA can overcome the small-market issue. Some of football’s biggest stars over the years, such as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Patrick Mahomes, spent their primes in small markets but were the most marketable and recognizable players among casual fans. LeBron got his start and eventually won an NBA championship in Cleveland, and that didn’t hurt his status one bit.

“The National Hockey League still has a lot of work to do, in partnership with the PA (players’ association) and with its broadcast rightsholders,” Mayenknecht said. “There’s a lot more that can be done in terms of individual player marketing. But the league is better now than it was 30 years ago … but it’s still fourth among the big four (leagues).”

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McDavid is from Newmarket, Ontario, which is just north of Toronto, Canada’s biggest city and the country’s financial hub. Turn on a Canadian sports channel and you’re likely to see him during a commercial block promoting all sorts of products and services.

Jackson was McDavid’s agent from the time the hockey phenom was 15 until he took his job with the Oilers last August. The one cross-border endorsement deal he secured for his client was with BetMGM, ads that also feature Gretzky.

McDavid’s deal with sports apparel giant Adidas meant he was considered for a massive marketing campaign with the biggest stars from across the globe. Adidas went in a different direction.

“They were great to work with. They were a great partner for Connor,” Jackson said. “We just didn’t get the wider use out of it.”

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Like baseball, hockey fandom is more regional, Mayenknecht said. He points to McDavid being outside the top five in terms of athlete recognition index among NHLers this season, according to Fanatics.

No. 1 is rookie Connor Bedard, who plays in big-market Chicago.

“Because of residency, Connor Bedard has an opportunity to rise above McDavid’s status — especially if he becomes part of a competitive team, a contender,” Mayenknecht said.

Television ratings are up this postseason, and McDavid’s exploits undoubtedly play into that. The Oilers captain has 31 points in 18 games to lead all scorers. However, two-thirds of the viewers in Games 1 through 3 of the Oilers’ last series against Dallas were in Canada.

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Canadian audiences will be tuned in to the final as McDavid and the Oilers try to break a 31-year Stanley Cup drought by a Canadian-based team.

But that might not be enough to entice Americans, and the Panthers don’t have the same reach or broad appeal as the New York Rangers, the team they eliminated in the last round.

ESPN, the carrier of this year’s final, broadcast 11 Oilers games this season — including two on the main network and one on ABC. The league has also made a concerted effort to get McDavid in the spotlight.

An all-access, six-part Amazon series was announced Thursday, which features McDavid as one of the key players. It’ll be released in the fall.

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McDavid is also scheduled to appear on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday.

“We’re not looking to do something and force something on somebody that they’re not comfortable doing,” Gross said.

“It seems like there’s a willingness (from McDavid) that there hasn’t been before,” NHL senior executive vice president and chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “He gets it. This is his moment.”

McDavid, who entered the league as a shy and introverted teenager, has tried to open up a bit.

“I feel like I’m more comfortable in these environments and speaking my mind on a couple things,” McDavid said. “That being said, I’m still not the most outspoken guy. When I feel my voice can contribute, I’m not afraid to share it.”

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McDavid has been on rules committees and helped revise the skills competition at the All-Star Game. The way he was continuously outspoken about the need for a best-on-best international hockey tournament helped move the needle toward getting the 4 Nations Face-Off planned for February 2025 and players back in the next Winter Olympics.

He’s also been willing to joke around in a media setting, which was most notably on display earlier this season when he cracked that he didn’t want to score anymore after he went 10 games without a goal. (That the Oilers had turned their season around after being tied for last place in the standings in early November, and he had 23 assists during that span, probably put him in a more jovial mood.)

“If you think about the pressure that’s on a young man coming in with the spotlight he had as a teenager and adapting into the league, it’s just like anything in life — you need to grow into it and be comfortable with it,” Jackson said. “I don’t think Connor liked being labeled as a superstar. He has a high degree of respect for the game. He wanted to earn it.

“What I’ve seen over the last two or three years is he’s comfortable being the face of the league. He’s grown into the role, and he’s handled it extremely well, especially considering the pressure that’s on him.”

McDavid is still only willing to pull back the curtain so much, though. Don’t expect him to be like LeBron holding court to talk about gun policies and the like.

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“The political side of things I leave to the experts,” McDavid said. “I have nothing really to add on that stuff. I know hockey, and I know hockey well. I try to stick with it.”

That’s not unique to McDavid. Plenty of athletes aren’t comfortable going on the record about controversial topics.

“He lives in a fishbowl,” Ferraro said. “Everything he does is going to be scrutinized 100 different ways from Tuesday.”

Mayenknecht has offered media training to a few hundred high-level athletes, including Olympians and NHLers. He said there’s nothing worse than someone trying to feign interest in an issue or put on a facade.

“You can’t force someone to be anything other than themselves,” Mayenknecht said. “One of the worst things that can be done is to take a mild-mannered personality and try to make them a standup comedian. That won’t work.

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“Connor McDavid is not an activist athlete in the way LeBron James is, but I’d argue there’s stuff that can be done to make up for that and connect him to fans.”


For his part, McDavid isn’t preoccupied with how playing in the Stanley Cup Final can grow his brand or increase his stardom in the United States.

“I couldn’t care less about that,” he said with a laugh. “I want to be part of a group that wins. That’s all I want to do.”

Nothing drives McDavid more than wanting to win, according to those who know him best.

Now, he has a chance to win something he’s dreamed about for years. People should be tuning in, even if their fan allegiances aren’t with the Oilers.

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“If you have no skin in the game, why are you going to watch?” Ferraro said. “McDavid is the hook because he’s the best player in the game.”

McDavid has always preferred to let his play on the ice speak for him. He’ll likely have something special in store in this series.

“For those fans who only see him in Instagram highlights or on ‘SportsCenter’ in the U.S., they’re going to appreciate the completeness of his game,” Jackson said. “He scores goals you shake your head at. But when you watch him live, you’ll see a player who competes extremely hard on every shift, plays good defense and wins puck battles that help you win.”

If he’s at his best, there’s a strong chance that’ll put the Oilers over the top. And if that happens, there’s no doubt he’ll become a bigger star in the United States.

“Casual sports fans are the ones who drive this train,” Mayenknecht said. “It’s not the hardcore. It’s when you get into converting and having awareness among casual fans, like Gretzky created in Los Angeles, that things turn around.

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“Connor McDavid winning a Stanley Cup in 2024 will certainly make him that much more recognizable, that much more appreciated, in 2025 and beyond.”

The Athletic’s Michael Russo contributed to this report.

(Top illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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Rafael Nadal, Carlos Alcaraz confirmed as Olympic doubles pair for Spain

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Rafael Nadal, Carlos Alcaraz confirmed as Olympic doubles pair for Spain

Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz will represent Spain as a tennis doubles pairing at the Paris Olympics, which begins on July 26.

David Ferrer, the former world No 3 and current national selector for Spain, announced at a Royal Spanish Tennis Federation (RFET) press conference on Wednesday that Spain’s men’s team will include Nadal, the 22-time Grand Slam champion, Alcaraz, the three-time Grand Slam champion, Pablo Carreno Busta, and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. Marcel Granollers, a doubles specialist whose partnership with Argentinian Horacio Zeballos is currently the best in the world by combined ranking, is also included.

Ferrer said that he believes Nadal and Alcaraz “have the capacity to win a medal in doubles” after the team announcement.

This will be Alcaraz’s first Olympics, coming after his title defence at Wimbledon, which begins on July 1, and his recent victory over Alexander Zverev in the Roland Garros final last Sunday. Nadal is currently on the entry list for Wimbledon, using his protected injury ranking of 10, but said after exiting Roland Garros that playing “wouldn’t be a good idea.”

Nadal, who already holds a singles gold medal from Beijing 2008 and a doubles gold medal from Rio de Janeiro 2016 with Marc Lopez, will compete in his last Games. Although he has not announced his retirement date, he has not ruled out a return to the French Open in 2025 after losing to Zverev in the first round this year.

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Paula Badosa, meanwhile, will not feature due to WTA rules. Badosa has chosen to use her protected injury ranking to enter the next two Grand Slam tournaments, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, which begins in late August; the former world No 2 was not permitted to use that ranking for both tournaments and the Olympics. Sara Sorribes Tormo and Cristina Bucsa will be Spain’s representatives on the women’s side.

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(Candice Ward/Getty Images)

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Ricciardo’s Montreal upgrade hinged on 'self-therapy' — not Jacques Villeneuve

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Ricciardo’s Montreal upgrade hinged on 'self-therapy' — not Jacques Villeneuve

There was a point towards the end of last year when there was a genuine feeling that Daniel Ricciardo was lining up to take Sergio Pérez’s Formula One seat at Red Bull for 2025.

Ricciardo made clear upon his mid-season return to the grid with AlphaTauri (now RB) that getting back in the Red Bull, the same seat he vacated back in 2018, was his ultimate target. As Pérez struggled through the second half of the season, suggestions of that happening only grew.

But, Ricciardo did very little to press his case in the early part of 2024. He frequently trailing teammate Yuki Tsunoda and, besides his run to P4 in the Miami sprint qualifying and race, had not delivered a points finish ahead of Canada and sat 14th in the driver standings. Meanwhile, Pérez performed well enough to secure a contract extension through 2026, ending Ricciardo’s hopes of moving up anytime in the near future.

Off the back of Pérez’s confirmation, Ricciardo acknowledged he had to “hold myself probably accountable for not doing anything too spectacular” this season. “When you’re trying to fight for a top seat, you need to be doing some pretty awesome things,” he said.

By the Canadian Grand Prix, Ricciardo’s tough start to the season had changed his aim from fighting for a top seat to fighting for his current seat.

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No one went further in questioning Ricciardo’s future than Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 F1 world champion who was part of Sky Sports’ broadcast team for his home race in Montreal.


Jacques Villeneuve leveled harsh criticism at Daniel Ricciardo in Montreal. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Why is he still here?” Villeneuve said of Ricciardo, asking why he continued to struggle with his cars and declaring that “his image has kept him in F1 more than his actual results.” A brutal takedown, one that quickly went viral given how rare it is for a pundit to be so outspoken on an English-language F1 broadcast.

Villeneuve was harsh — perhaps too harsh — but few would dispute the element of truth in what he said. Ricciardo has been clear throughout this year he knows he’s not been doing a good enough job, and has plenty more performance to find.

Just 24 hours later, he found it. In tricky, windy conditions, Ricciardo not only made it through to Q3 for just the second time this season, but he stuck his RB car fifth on the grid, within two-tenths of pole position. Perfect timing, particularly off the back of Tsunoda’s confirmation at RB for 2025 only 90 minutes earlier.

It meant Ricciardo entered the media pen after qualifying with some of his old swagger and sparkle. He knew the questions that were about to come, that Villeneuve’s name would come up. Ricciardo hadn’t fully listened to what had been said about him, he said, only that he “heard he’s been talking s—.”

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“But he always does,” Ricciardo continued. “I think he’s hit his head a few too many times, I don’t know if he plays ice hockey or something. But yeah. Anyway. I won’t give him the time of day.” Then came a “but…” and a lean in close to the microphones: “All those people can suck it! I want to say more, but it’s alright. We’ll leave him behind.”

It was only qualifying, after all. We’d seen this kind of flash from Ricciardo in Miami in the sprint, only for it to disappear when it mattered in the grand prix sessions. This was nevertheless a perfectly timed clapback to Villeneuve’s criticism.

But to directly link the two would do Ricciardo a disservice. He revealed that after Monaco, he made a concerted effort to try to understand why things weren’t working, going beyond his on-track performance and data such as braking points or corner speeds. It required calling on not only the team’s management and engineers, but also his inner-circle off the track, and asking them to be open books with their feedback.

MONTREAL, QUEBEC - JUNE 09: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Visa Cash App RB VCARB 01 on track during the F1 Grand Prix of Canada at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 09, 2024 in Montreal, Quebec. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Ricciardo qualified P5 and finished P8 over a rainy weekend in Montreal. (Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

“It was like, OK, what are maybe some other things that are affecting my performances?” Ricciardo said. “Am I coming into a race weekend not feeling energized or not feeling this or that?

“I think I just had a little bit of good self-therapy after Monaco, and just sat back and had a look at maybe the things I’m doing wrong away from the track. Or giving too much of my time to people and by the time I get to race day or something, I’m a little bit more flat.

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“Deep down, I know what I can do, and it’s just making sure I’m in this spot to be able to do it more often.”

And making sure that those flashes of pace turn into something valuable when it matters on Sunday. Ricciardo’s Canadian Grand Prix was far from straightforward, with a creeping car on the start line — which Ricciardo suspected was due to a clutch issue — triggering a jump start and a five-second penalty. He managed to survive the chaos and benefit from some late incidents to grab four points for P8, nearly doubling his total for the season. That alone in the high-pressure conditions felt like a success to Ricciardo.

“All in all, (I’m) happy,” he said. “These races, it’s hard to be perfect. I made mistakes, obviously we were just trying to survive at times. So (I’m) just happy we got there in the end.”

MONTREAL, QUEBEC - JUNE 09: 8th placed Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Visa Cash App RB celebrates with fans after the F1 Grand Prix of Canada at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 09, 2024 in Montreal, Quebec. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Canada marked the first points-scoring grand prix for Ricciardo. (Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

The greater takeaway for Ricciardo from the Montreal weekend was that it went well from the moment he turned his first laps in FP1 right to the race. For the first time this season, every single session felt positive.

“It’s nice just to be competitive from Friday through to Sunday,” Ricciardo said. “I’m happy. (I’ve) just got to keep it rolling.”

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Ricciardo has time on his side when it comes to proving to Red Bull what he can do and securing an extension with RB. If it wants to make a change, then reserve driver Liam Lawson is ready to step up, as the young Kiwi proved through his five-race stand-in when Ricciardo was injured last year. But there’s no reason for the team to rush into making that call yet.

Ricciardo will hope Montreal serves as a turning point in his season, a breakthrough after the earlier lifts to better understand where he was going wrong. Importantly, he also wants to ensure he keeps the feeling he brought to last weekend.

“That little energy, that little bit of a chip on my shoulder I brought into the weekend, I’ve got to make sure that stays there, and just keep that level of intensity,” Ricciardo said.

“Sometimes being a little bit… I don’t know if I need to be a bit angry or just get my testosterone up. But I think it helps me.”

(Lead photo of Daniel Ricciardo: Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

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Will the best Celtics player please rise? There's a long list of nominees after Game 2 win

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Will the best Celtics player please rise? There's a long list of nominees after Game 2 win

BOSTON — Considering his 26-point, 11-rebound effort in the Celtics’ 105-98 victory in Game 2 of the NBA Finals Sunday night, does that now make Jrue Holiday Boston’s best player?

Or, with Derrick White meeting P.J. Washington at the rim and making a stunning block of a would-be running dunk with 50.5 seconds remaining to keep the Mavericks from closing to within three points, does that transform White into Boston’s finest?

We are, after all, living in an NBA postseason in which recency bias has become a thing. For that, stick tap to Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who is playing head games while everybody else is just trying to play basketball. His twice-said Saturday comment that Jaylen Brown is the Celtics’ best player created quite a stir but also opened up a runway for the recency bias crowd to put it out there that, well, Brown did emerge as MVP of the Eastern Conference finals. And that, went the goofy logic, meant Brown, and not Jayson Tatum, is Boston’s “best” player.

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And now, while mulling all that, consider what happened after Game 2 Sunday night when Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla arrived in the interview room for his postgame news conference. The first question had something to do with Tatum, but Mazzulla instead pivoted to what happened on the last possession of the third quarter when Payton Pritchard, who had just entered the game in place of Holiday, raced up the court and delivered a 34-foot buzzer-beating bank shot to give the Celtics an 83-74 lead.

Proclaiming it “the play of the game,” Mazzulla noted that “you see guys around the league pass up on that shot or fake like they want to take it, so that their numbers don’t get messed up. He takes pride in taking that, and that’s winning basketball.”

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Mazzulla didn’t stop there. “That first and foremost should have been the first question,” he said. “The ability of everybody on our team to do different things that lead to winning.”

Mazzulla then went here: “I’m really tired of hearing about one guy or this guy or that guy and everybody trying to make it out to be anything other than Celtic basketball. Everybody that stepped on that court today made winning plays on both ends of the floor, (and that’s) the most important thing.”

What an exchange. It began with a question about Tatum that tuned into an answer about a 3-pointer by Pritchard, and it ended with Journalism Joe explaining which question should have been batting leadoff. It was goofy, sure, but it was absolutely brilliant in that it had the effect of turning Kidd’s comment about Jaylen Brown into an exploding cigar.


Jrue Holiday’s 26-point, 11-rebound effort in Game 2 was foremost among many great performances for the Celtics. (Peter Casey / USA Today)

Such was the Celtics’ across-the-board effort in Game 2 that it became folly to proclaim this or that player Boston’s top performer. You could have gone with Holiday because of the 26 points. You could have gone with White because of the block. But wait! If Mazzulla had had his way, Pritchard would have been extra, extra, read all about it. And as if anyone needed yet more evidence that Kidd really stepped in it with his attempt to bring a little discord to the Celtics locker room, consider how Holiday conducted his affairs at his postgame conference.

With Mazzulla, it was all about telling the media people what the first question should have been. With Holiday, it was all but providing an answer before a question had even been asked.

First, some background. On Saturday, Holiday was asked if he had any thoughts on Kidd’s remark about Brown and replied, “I don’t think he’s lying.” Which was taken to mean he agreed with Kidd’s remark.

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When he arrived in the interview room after Game 2, Holiday got right down to business.

“If I could say something before we jump in, I want to address the comment that was made yesterday,” he began. “I feel like people kind of took that out of context. I’ve been hearing that I prefer JB over JT, and that’s not what that was. I like to praise my teammates. I like to praise my teammates when they’re playing well, and I feel like that’s what I did my best to do.”

He went on to say that “… to compare them is something that I would never do because they’re two completely different players as well as being on the same team, and the things that they have done in this organization and the things that they have done against me as an opponent, I say, like, how they play together and how they work together is something that is sacred and something that can’t be broken.”

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What’s interesting about all this — no, make that what’s amazing about all this — is that last season ended with Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens practically being delivered a mandate to build a better team and not rely on the dazzling talents of Tatum and Brown to deliver a championship. And by trading Marcus Smart and bringing in Kristaps Porzingis and Holiday, it’s safe to say Stevens did indeed build a better team. The Celtics’ best-of-show 64-18 regular-season record will attest to that.

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But if you want to talk team, and not just from the perspective of how the roster looks but also from the perspective of its character and soul, consider how the Celtics countered Kidd.

Brown and Tatum essentially stayed out of it. Holiday submitted a scrapbook playoff performance and then opened his postgame presser with Holiday’s Soliloquy, during which he spoke emotionally about his feelings for Tatum and Brown, and the camaraderie that’s taking place in the room.

And then there was Joe Mazzulla in the role of Perry White, editor of the Metropolis Daily Planet, deciding what’s news and what isn’t.

Never in the Tatum-Brown/Brown-Tatum era have the Celtics been more of a team than they were Sunday night.

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(Top photo of Jaylen Brown: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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