“I have to continue to say it: At one point when I write my book, they will have a chapter — Paul, Ray, ‘Do, Perk, KG — for what they did for my career.”
–LeBron James, December 2015
By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — LeBron James’ legacy will be just that: LeBron James’ legacy. His place on the imaginary all-time greatest players lists, his spot in the Hall of Fame, the rings on his fingers, his stats and records — they all will be tied to him and him alone.
But as we’ve been reminded over the past week, there may be no opponent of LeBron that ends up playing a bigger role in shaping that legacy than the Boston Celtics.
Sure, LeBron has faced the Spurs three times in the NBA Finals, losing twice. And the same can be said about the Warriors, with there still being an opportunity for at least one more Finals meeting taking place this spring. If the ever-inane LeBron vs. MJ debate is built largely on championships won, then the opponents in the Finals would seemingly be the most significant adversaries in LeBron’s career.
But there is something to be said about the journey. There’s something to be said about a conference foe, one that can never be avoided and one that will never ease up. And in the case of LeBron James, there’s something to be said about the persistent presence of the Boston Celtics standing in his way of earning nearly everything he’s ever wanted to win in the NBA.
That relationship has, quite obviously, evolved over the years.
In the spring of 2008, even though he had carried his Cavaliers to a Finals the year before, it was not yet LeBron’s time to reign over the East. Then, it was time for the Celtics — led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen — to get what they had earned over the course of their Hall of Fame careers. But LeBron did not make it easy.
After the Cavs tied the series at 2-2, LeBron showed the world what it looked like when he emptied the tank. In the final three games of that Eastern Conference semifinals, James averaged 37.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists. His showdown with Pierce in Game 7 was masterful, one for the ages, one that saw LeBron outduel a future Hall of Famer still very much in his prime. But for LeBron, this would not be the time for his full ascent, thanks in large part to — of all things — a mid-range jumper from P.J. Brown. Pierce outworked LeBron for a loose ball in the final minute, all but sealing the Celtics win.
The season for the 23-year-old James ended that day in Boston.
“This,” LeBron said after the five-point loss, “will go down in history.”
It did, but putting up a monster performance in a losing effort and then having to watch the Celtics march on to an NBA title didn’t quite sit well with LeBron.
“Obviously, [Paul Pierce] gets a Cliffs Note or a couple notes in my book as far as guys that helped me get over the hump or kept me where I was at the time. I knew I had to become much better individually. He’s one of those guys.”
–LeBron James, May 2015
The rematch would have to wait two years; an injury to Garnett led to the Celtics losing in the second round of the 2009 playoffs to the Magic. LeBron and the Cavs were the Magic’s next victim.
But in 2010, the Cavs and Celtics met in the second round once again. The series was a strange one.
The Cavs won Game 1 by eight points. The Celtics won Game 2 by 18. The Cavaliers won Game 3, in Boston, by 29 points. After winning Game 4 by 10 points, the Celtics finally won two games in a row with a 32-point blowout in Game 5. LeBron was a minus-32 in that one, and though nothing was formally announced, it sure felt like it would be his final home game in the city of Cleveland. He was 3-of-14 from the field and 0-of-4 from 3, and the 21 points from teammate Shaquille O’Neal were not nearly enough to keep Cleveland in the game.
The series then headed to Boston for Game 6. LeBron had a chance to put the Cavaliers on his shoulders once more, win the game, and force a Game 7 back in Cleveland. He did put up a triple-double, with 22 points and a ridiculous 19 rebounds. But it was not an overwhelming performance. He shot 8-for-21 from the field, and the Cavs only led for 2:31 of the entire game. And after a pair of early fourth-quarter 3’s from LeBron cut Boston’s lead to four points, James would go 1-for-3 from the field with two turnovers the rest of the way. The Celtics won by nine.
LeBron walked off the court and removed his Cavs jersey. The Celtics went on to lose the Finals in seven games to the Lakers. A couple of months later, LeBron was sitting with Jim Gray for “The Decision.”
He couldn’t get past the Celtics. Not with those Cavs. And he knew it. Not even a 61-win season could prevent the Cavs from a six-game ouster, one which saw the Celtics outscore Cleveland by an average of 17 points over the final three games.
“A friend of mine told me, ‘I guess you’ve got to go through a lot of nightmares before you realize your dream.’ That’s what’s going on for me individually right now.”
–LeBron James, May 2010, after being eliminated by the Celtics
It was time for a new home in Miami, but the Celtics were not planning on going away. Sure enough, there they were, waiting for LeBron and the Heat in the second round of the 2011 playoffs.
The superteam Heat treated the Celtics like doormats.
LeBron averaged 28 points and eight rebounds as the Heat rolled right over the Celtics in five games. Finally, the road to a championship for LeBron had been paved with a steamroller right through Boston, a team of aging stars who were now set to get out of LeBron’s way for the foreseeable future.
But, well, things don’t always go as planned. The Heat met the Mavericks in the Finals, and another superstar who had gone far too long without winning a title was the one who took over the series. Dirk Nowitzki averaged 26 points and 9.7 rebounds in the six-game series, winning the Finals MVP and his first championship.
LeBron? He averaged just under 18 points per game, a stretch that included an eight-point dud on 3-for-11 shooting in a Game 4 loss that allowed Dallas to tie the series.
Turns out, winning a title wouldn’t be easy. And as it also turned out, those aging Celtics weren’t quite ready to give up the East.
Fast-forward to the following spring, and for the fourth time in five years, LeBron would be facing the Celtics in the playoffs. This time, though, it came in the conference finals. A trip to the Finals hung in the balance. LeBron still yearned for that first title, while the Celtics’ big three hopes to squeeze one more championship out of their run together.
And those Celtics were able to turn back the clock. After the Heat opened the series with two wins in Miami, the Celtics won two on their own home court before winning the all-important Game 5 back in Miami. With the series heading back to Boston, all the Celtics had to do was win one more game to get back to the Finals for the third time in five years.
But they did not know what would happen next. What happened next was the turning point of LeBron’s career. It was the moment when he went from being known as a perennial playoff loser to being known simply as an assassin.
LeBron hit the court that night in Boston, and he did not miss. He had 30 points by halftime, and his Heat had a 13-point lead. LeBron showed almost no emotion as he hit shot after shot after shot to silence the Garden crowd. Pierce, meanwhile, went 3-for-16 through the first three quarters of the game. LeBron let off the gas pedal, ending his night with 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. If needed, the feeling in the building that night was that LeBron could have done whatever was needed of him — whether it was 50 points or 60 points, LeBron could have gotten there.
But he didn’t need to. The Heat won by a comfortable 19 points, and the performance was so dominating, so transcendent, that the 18,000 Celtics fans in attendance joined together for a supportive chant in the fourth quarter. It was an unofficial farewell to the Big Three. You know, just in case LeBron did that again in Game 7.
The teams went back to Miami with a trip to the Finals at stake. And in that Game 7, James recorded a double-double with 31 points and 12 rebounds, leading all players in both categories. He wasn’t losing this game. And he didn’t; the Heat won by 13 points.
The Heat got past the Celtics. LeBron got past the Celtics. This time, it was most certainly happening for him.
“Thank you!! Competing vs you in whatever uniform u were in at the time meant the world to me because of two distinctive trait u had. Passion and commitment to just compete every single possession. U showed me what it took.”
–LeBron James, to Kevin Garnett via Instagram, September 2016
The Oklahoma City Thunder won Game 1 of the Finals but otherwise offered little resistance to the Heat. LeBron averaged 28.6 points and 10.2 rebounds in the five-game series. He was a champion. And he was a Finals MVP.
“My dream has become a reality now,” LeBron said. “And it’s the best feeling I ever had.”
At that point, the East belonged to LeBron. He and the Heat would reach the Finals for the next two years, winning another title thanks to Ray Allen’s season-saving shot for the Heat in 2013 (another case of the Celtics impacting LeBron’s career) following a LeBron bricked three, and then losing to the Spurs in 2014. LeBron then went back to Cleveland and brought the Cavs back to the Finals in 2015, only to get buzzsawed by the up-and-coming Warriors in Games 4-6. LeBron and the Cavs exacted revenge a year later, when future-Celtic Kyrie Irving hit the winning shot in Game 7 against those Warriors in 2016. And the world was witness to a third straight Cavs-Warriors Finals in 2017, with LeBron’s team losing in five games.
En route to two of those Finals appearances — in the first round in 2015 and the conference finals in 2017 — the Cavs rolled right over the Celtics, who weren’t nearly on Cleveland’s level.
All of which brings us to the current day. LeBron and the Cavs were heavy favorites to once again exterminate the Celtics, but they now find themselves in a 2-0 hole as the series heads back to Cleveland.
Those who watched LeBron and his teammates look uninspired back in the spring of 2010 can’t help but find parallels this time around. LeBron, after all, is once again set to become a free agent this summer, giving him one last chance to pick a new home for the back end of his best years, if that is what his heart desires. Perhaps it will be in Los Angeles, where he can team up with a friend and work on his post-playing career in Hollywood. Maybe it’ll be in Philadelphia, where he’ll most certainly continue to bang heads with the Celtics for the rest of his career. Maybe he’ll go to New York, just to feel the type of love and adulation that only the Garden can provide. Nobody knows.
But that’s the future. In the present, everybody knows to not yet shovel dirt on LeBron and the Cavaliers. While it’s difficult to imagine James putting forth a better performance than his 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in a 13-point loss in Game 2, basketball fans should know that a team with LeBron James should never be counted out until the scoreboard goes final.
There’s a chance yet that LeBron puts this Cavs team on his back, climbs out of this 2-0 hole, and heads back to a ridiculous eighth straight NBA Finals. Nearly a full decade of Eastern Conference dominance.
Standing in the way of what he wants? The Boston Celtics. For the seventh time in the past 11 years. Same as ever. Same as always.