By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If you drive on the Mass Pike past the Celtics’ sparkling new practice and training facility in Brighton this week, roll your window down and listen closely. You just might hear “Ding-Dong The Witch Is Dead!” blasting loudly out of the executive offices.
No, LeBron James is not dead. That would be a terrible thing to celebrate. But as far as the Celtics are concerned, finally LeBron James is out of the Eastern Conference.
And the Celtics’ path to the NBA Finals has now been freshly paved.
Of course, the 2018-19 Celtics still have to actually achieve that goal, but looking at LeBron’s departure from the conference gives Boston very little excuse to do anything next season except reach the Finals. No excuse at all.
You’ll remember, surely, that this past June marked LeBron’s eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. Eight. Four of those came with Miami (he won twice), and four came with Cleveland (one win). In the process, the greatest player of his generation and arguably of all time has stood in the way of everything the Celtics have been trying to do.
Granted, the Celtics were not always championship-caliber over the past eight years. But in 2011, in a year coming off a seven-game Finals loss, the Celtics were quickly ousted by the Heat in the second round of the playoffs. LeBron averaged 28 points and 8 rebounds in the five-game series win.
The next year, in what was the last gasp of The Big Three, the Celtics actually led the Heat 3-2 before heading home for a clincher in Boston. But in that game, LeBron reached a new level of dominance, scoring 45 points with 15 rebounds in a blowout victory to force Game 7. LeBron (31 points, 12 rebounds) and the Heat won that game by 13 points to earn a Finals berth, where James would win his first title.
Without Ray Allen the following year, the Celtics went just 41-40 before losing to the Knicks in the first round. The Heat would end up beating the Spurs in the Finals … thanks to Ray Allen saving the day in Game 6.
It was then that the Celtics went into rebuild mode, selling off Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (in maybe the most lopsided trade in NBA history) while bringing in Brad Stevens. After bottoming out for just one year, the up-and-coming Celtics earned a playoff bid in year two of the rebuild. Positivity abounded. Until the playoffs actually began. LeBron and the Cavs rolled right over Boston, sweeping the Celtics out of the first round. Not one game was even close.
In 2016, the Celtics improved their win total by eight games but couldn’t get past the Hawks in the first round. LeBron would end up leading his Cavaliers out of a 3-1 hole to the Warriors in the Finals, capped off with a series-winning 3-pointer in Game 7 by Kyrie Irving. (Danny Ainge liked what he saw in that moment and likely jotted down a note or two.)
Then came 2017. The Celtics were not fully back to being legitimate contenders, but they were close. Isaiah Thomas performed like a legitimate MVP candidate, and the team finally started winning some playoff rounds. With Al Horford on board (he was likely the subject of a positive notation or two in Ainge’s notebook over the years), the Celtics beat the Bulls in six games and then overcame the Wizards in seven games. It was time for a conference finals showdown against — who else?
The Celtics entered that series as distinct underdogs, of course, but given what the team had done all year, and given what Thomas was doing, there were at least some faint thoughts of an upset. But LeBron quickly dispelled any notion of the Celtics even being close to the Cavaliers’ realm. He scored 38 points in a 13-point Game 1 win, then scored 30 in just 32 minutes in an absolute romp of a Game 2, which Cleveland won by 44 points. The Celtics were outclassed and ultimately lost Thomas to injury and lost the series in five games.
Once again, LeBron stood in the way.
All of which set the stage for 2018, a time when LeBron and the Cavaliers finally looked vulnerable. Though the Celtics were shorthanded without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, they had a legitimate shot to win this series and finally get back to the Finals. And after Boston won the first two games of the series in blowout fashion, confidence was growing. And though the Cavs answered those blowouts with some dominant victories of their own in Games 3 and 4, the Celtics answered right back with a 13-point win in Game 5. The Celtics had two chances to beat a Cavaliers team that had maybe the weakest supporting casts LeBron has ever had.
But it didn’t matter. With LeBron, it never does. He scored 46 points with 11 rebounds and nine assists, willing his team to victory in Game 6. And in Game 7, the Celtics fell apart, going 7-for-39 from 3-point range and scoring just 79 points. LeBron put forth a casual 35-point, 15-round, 9-assist night while playing all 48 minutes. Once again, a promising Celtics season was extinguished by LeBron James.
Over the course of eight years — almost twice the length of an average NBA career — LeBron has been an absolute menace to the Boston Celtics. After initially suffering some setbacks against Boston’s Big Three, LeBron effectively ended the Pierce-Garnett-Allen era, then stole Allen to boot. He stomped on the likable, overachievers led by Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder. And then, even with a starting five that might not have won a game without him, LeBron slammed the door on the meteoric rise of the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown Celtics. Terry Rozier developed the nickname “Scary Terry” during the postseason run, and the nickname was apt … until LeBron was on the other side of the court.
Now, though, a new era has dawned in the Eastern Conference. And taking stock of that landscape, all the Celtics have to do next season is perform up to their capabilities and avoid catastrophic injuries. If they can manage that, they’ll be playing in June against the best the West has to offer.
Of course, the Raptors are still hanging around, but nobody is ever afraid of the Raptors. The 76ers are making significant strides, but they could barely compete with the Celtics in the conference semis last year. Add Irving and Hayward into that mix, plus another year of development for both Tatum and Brown, and the Celtics should be able to handily beat Philadelphia once again next year.
It’s still an unknown where Kawhi Leonard ends up, and he could certainly shift some of the balance of power if he lands in the East. But even then, the Celtics will still be considered the favorites in the conference.
LeBron, meanwhile, joins a Western Conference that is absolutely stacked — and that goes beyond the historically prolific Warriors. The Western Conference now includes eight of the top-10 MVP vote-getters from last season. That’s not a one-year trend, either. The West had seven of the top 10 MVP vote-getters in 2017, and nine of the top 10 MVP vote-getters in 2016.
Strengthened more by LeBron’s move to L.A., the West is the iron of the NBA. The East? The East should now, without a doubt, belong to the Boston Celtics.