The intertwined legacies of LeBron James and the Boston Celtics

THE BOSTON CELTS they thought they had Lebron James right where they wanted it.

For the third time in five seasons, Boston had a chance to shut down James on home court inside the TD Garden. After winning Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals in Miami, the Celtics returned home confident that they would do it once again.

“We were ready,” Doc Rivers told ESPN with a wistful smile earlier this season. “Our guys were focused.”

There was only one problem: James too.

“I don’t think I opened my mouth to breathe [during the game]Brian Scalabrine, who was working as a television commentator in Boston at the time, told ESPN. “He was locked up. He was dominant.

“Every time we’d get close, he’d make a play, make a shot … that was the most dominant performance I’ve ever seen.”

Finally, James and the Miami Heat would win that game, thanks to James scoring 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting, along with 15 rebounds and five assists, as well as Game 7. A couple of weeks later, James would lead Miami to the first of its four NBA titles with a five-game win over the oklahoma city thunder. Even so, all these years later, Rivers is still thinking about that Game 6.

“I’ll tell you, of all the games [I’ve coached]“Rivers said, “If we could have somehow stolen that series, that would have broken that team.

“He just wanted Miami to get to that game. Without that big effort, we beat them. And I believe it.

“But, he is LeBron James.”

On Saturday night, James will make his 99th appearance, counting both regular-season and playoff games, against the Celtics throughout his legendary career when his los angeles lakers enter TD Garden (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC). And while James has yet to face the Celtics in the NBA Finals in his four-plus seasons with the Lakers, though the two teams have been involved in several exciting regular-season games, including Boston’s overtime win. Last month, by winning the 2020 NBA title, James accomplished something Los Angeles has been waiting for decades for: tying Boston for the most championships (17) in NBA history.

That James is coming here to the precipice of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the leading scorer in NBA history couldn’t be more fitting. Over the past two decades, so many moments that made him a legend, that shaped the direction of his career, came against the Celtics. Moments so impactful that the reverberations are still felt to this day, still shaping what is arguably the greatest player and most storied franchise in basketball history.

“I think gaining that experience my first year really helped me and it helped our team a lot, because we’ve been through great times.” jayson tatum said of facing LeBron as a rookie. “We have succeeded many times in great moments, and we have come up short.

“I think just getting that early experience can only help you in the present now and for the future.”

LeBron James is one of the most essential figures in basketball history. And there are few more pivotal moments in his story than his matchup with the Boston Celtics.

DURING In his 20 years in the NBA, James had several rivalries that came and went. He started his career with battles against Gilbert Arenas and the washington wizards. He had his first real breaking moment in the playoffs against the detroit pistons. he faced the san antonio spurs three times in the NBA Finals. And although he battles with him warriors of the golden state during four consecutive Finals helped define the previous decade, there was no real story between the two before or since.

The Celtics, on the other hand, were a constant thorn in James’ side, a team he’s faced in the postseason seven times, the most series by any opponent he’s faced in his playoff career. Three of those series, the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2008 and the Eastern Conference finals in 2012 and 2018, were the full seven games and produced some of the most iconic moments of James’ career.

Although James led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, Cleveland was an underdog when it faced Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals the next season. Boston, which won the title that season, had won 66 regular-season games after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who joined Paul Pierce to form the first modern Big Three.

The series against Cleveland was the closest the Celtics team had come to being eliminated in those playoffs. And, as Scalabrine watched James work as a member of that team, he couldn’t help but be impressed by how he was handling a defense that was 2.4 points per 100 possessions better than any team that season.

“We never really thought that an individual player could dominate us,” Scalabrine said. “And he was able to do it in many ways. He could beat you with his brains, he could beat you physically and he could beat you at the hoop.”

And, in the end, he almost managed to beat the Celtics outright. In Game 7, James scored 45 points, the first of three spectacular win-or-go-home games he would have against Boston on the road in his career. It was such an impressive performance that it left Rivers and his top lieutenant, future Bulls, Timberwolves and Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, feeling helpless.

“LeBron was making shots that he just didn’t make at that point in his career,” Rivers said, before adding with a laugh: “[Thibodeau] and I, we were frustrated. Like, ‘What the hell? He’s doing all the f’ing’ shots.”

In the end, though, Pierce did enough to hold off James and the Cavaliers, not only scoring 41 points of his own, but diving to the ground to wrestle and secure a possession after a jump ball, which, along with with Pierce lifting the NBA Finals MVP trophy a few weeks later, he became the enduring image of Boston’s run to the Banner 17.

Then, after a disappointing 2010 playoff exit in Boston, James took his talents to South Beach, joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form one of the iconic teams in NBA history, one that was designed to defeat to the Celtics. And make no mistake: The Celtics loved it that way.

“We loved it,” Rivers said. “We loved it. Perhaps the funniest interview in the history of interviews was Kevin Garnett, when they’d say, ‘The Big Three,’ and he’d say, ‘The Big Two.’ He refused to call them the big three.

“Bosh always thought it was about him, but it was Kevin’s way of saying, ‘We’re the Big Three. Nobody else is The Big Three. I’m not going to give it to them.’ It showed how competitive we were.”

However, the rest of the basketball world saw it differently. In the wake of “The Decision,” there was no bigger story in sports than The Heatles, the team everyone loved to hate. every movement dissected in countless ways. The Celtics then won the first game James played for the Heat, the 2010-11 season opener in Boston.

Sure, James could have teamed up with Wade and Bosh to take down the Celtics, but they still had to. And Boston was not going down without a fight.

“Man, listen,” Garnett said in “The Bill Simmons Podcast” in 2019 in a discussion about those Celtics-Heat collisions. “Let me tell you something. We Cs, we didn’t give a fuck about LeBron. We didn’t fear LeBron. And we didn’t think he could beat the five of us. And that’s how it felt. He was trying to consolidate [going to Miami] because he didn’t want the pressure on him. You understand?”

James, however, would still have the last laugh. After losing to Boston in 2008 and 2010, he would beat the Celtics in the playoffs the next five times the two teams met: in 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2018. Power had returned to the King.

THE LASTING STANDOUTFrom the Celtics’ perspective, since the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, then-rookie Jayson Tatum turned on James in the final moments of Game 7 of that series at TD Garden.

But when the oldest member of the current Celtics, smart marcusasked about his lasting memories of his many battles with James over the years, his eyes lit up immediately.

“When I blocked his dunk at his house,” Smart told ESPN with a laugh.

The play in question came in the fourth quarter of Game 6, when Smart met James at the rim and stoned him, though everyone was so shocked, having assumed James was just going to dunk the ball, that Larry Nance was easily able to pick it up. the loose ball and place it.

“LeBron splits the trap, and I was the lonely man [at the rim]“Smart said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God. What do I do here?’ So I’m like, “You know what? It’s either going to go either way. He’s going to dunk me or I’m going to block him. … If he dunks me, he’s supposed to.” about me. If I block this shot…

“But at that moment, while I was thinking that, he was coming at full speed and I lost all train of thought, and I jumped up.”

While Smart managed to keep James from dipping in Game 6, and Tatum managed to put James on a poster in Game 7, it was James who emerged victorious in the series. It was the first time Tatum had seen James in the playoffs; he was second by jaylen brown, who had been on Boston’s Eastern Conference final team the previous year in his rookie season. Meanwhile, Smart had played against, and lost to, James in the playoffs three times in a span of four years.

And, as Smart sat on a bench by Boston’s practice court last week, watching Brown and Tatum work out in front of him, he said the experience the three gained from those battles early in their careers helped boost this version of the Celtics. to where he is today, coming off a Finals appearance last season for the first time since 2010 and currently sporting the best record in the NBA.

“Guys can go their entire career without making it to a playoff game, let alone make the playoffs, making it to the Eastern Conference finals three times,” Smart said. “All those times [playing him]we were able to go through some adverse situations that prepared us for the next step.

“We were there [in 2018], and even then we feel like we should have beaten them. But LeBron became LeBron with us. There was nothing we could really do that day.

“But we were young. Very, very young.”

These days, the Celtics aren’t so young anymore. Smart, Tatum and Brown have played in more than 70 playoff games. They are all well established in their careers. And yet, when James began his career in 2003, all three were in elementary school: the perfect synthesis of the length and breadth of his overall career, and how long he’s been intertwined with the fate of the basketball team. Boston. .

“I think experience is the best teacher,” Brown said. “From the beginning, being able to participate in high-intensity moments where everyone is watching against some of the best players in the world has led to cultivating the experiences we get to see now. [from us]. Growth, the amount of basketball maturity, how to win games, all of that comes into play.

“So it should be fun to play against arguably the greatest player of all time in LeBron James.”

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