BOSTON – His eyes squinty, his feet shuffling, James Posey hobbled to his locker like an old man. Even when you've played a part in delivering one of the most stunning defensive performances ever thrust on LeBron James, the Cavaliers star still leaves you feeling like a running back the linebackers pounded on a long, cold December day.
Reaching down to clip the tape on his ankles had turned into pure agony Tuesday night, Posey's body too sore to bend one more time. For a defender, this is the most taxing job in basketball: Defending LeBron, and giving up your body for the greater good.
"He's strong," Posey said. The Celtics sixth man isn't interested in talking about his ability to use those long wiry arms, that innate understanding of the angles and lanes that a superstar never wants you to take away. No, he isn't much on talking about stopping James, just doing it.
"He's just very strong," Posey said.
Once in Game 1, Posey had been swinging at the ball and caught James' headband in mid-dribble, knocking it down over his eyes. With one hand, James kept his dribble.With the other, he flicked the band back into form, as though King James couldn't play on until he returned his crown to his head. Yes, the Celtics had come to take the King's Eastern Conference crown.
At the start of these conference semifinals, it wouldn't take long for James to understand that the officials weren't going to treat the Celtics like they did the Washington Wizards and parade him to the free-throw line. They are the best defensive team in the NBA, the No. 1 seed, and the rights and privileges that go with that included the latitude to defend James with a vengeance.
For everything the Boston Celtics had done to start these Eastern Conference semifinals, the way that they had turned Game 1 into sheer aesthetic blight, swarming James into an unspeakable struggle, the Cavaliers star still had a chance to steal Game 1 in the final seconds at the Garden.
This time, James made it to the rim, but so discombobulated, so rattled, he couldn't drop the ball into the net with 10 seconds left and the tying basket within reach. "That was just the lousy night that I had," James said. "Those are layups I made my whole life."
When it was over, James had a laugh at his locker. Someone handed him a box score, and the black and white told a story of the most humiliating night of his NBA career. He had missed 16 of 18 shots, turned the ball over 10 times and shrunk in the shadow of two immense baskets Kevin Garnett made in the final minute of the Celtics' 76-72 victory.
Misery had company here, and James found solace in the fact that Ray Allen had gone scoreless and Paul Pierce had missed 12 of his 14 shots. James studied his sheet and gleefully declared, "Four for 32 between me and Paul Pierce, with 16 turnovers … zero for nine from the three-point line …" He laughed to himself now.
"I can keep going, I guess."
Sam Cassell saved Allen with 13 points, the old man bringing back memories of a glorious clutch career. He's 38 and looks 48 prancing around the floor, but he'll make those open jump shots until he's 58. Once Pierce picked up two fouls on James, everything changed for him. His offense escaped him. Still, his reputation as a star won him two offensive charge calls on James. Maybe the Wizards had won position on James, too, but they don't have the clout these Celtics do to get calls.
James shrugged and sighed, "They're a great shrink-the-floor team." No one has done it better in the NBA this season, and so much of that comes out of the magnificent defensive mind of Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau. Doc Rivers was willing to turn the defensive side of the ball over to Thibodeau upon his arrival this summer, and those within the organization – officials, staff and players – call him the most painstakingly prepared coach they've ever worked with.
For nine years, Thibodeau had been Jeff Van Gundy's top assistant with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. Those were always the best-rated defenses in the sport, but it was natural for people to pass most of the credit onto Van Gundy. For how much was Thibodeau responsible? No one could tell – until now.
"In a lot of ways," Van Gundy told me this season, "it helped Tom to get away from me."
Thibodeau is a voracious studier of game tape, consistently beating everyone into the Celtics offices and leaving the latest. Over the summer, a friend of his called on an August Sunday morning just to leave him a voice mail. It was a little after 6 a.m. Thibodeau answered the phone. From the beginning, Rivers was willing to allow Thibodeau a semblance of autonomy on the defensive end. Most of all, the arrival of Garnett, who would become the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, gave the coaches an anchor for their system.
After they traded for Allen and Garnett, though, the Celtics were thinking about LeBron when they made a hard run at Posey, the Miami free agent. He had played for the great defensive minds of Pat Riley in Miami and Hubie Brown in Memphis, and there was no misunderstanding the reason Celtics insiders privately refer to the core as the Big Four.
Posey "was phenomenal," Rivers said.
What they did was constantly give James different looks – sometimes trapping, sometimes feigning traps. The double teams came and left him quickly. They pushed him to the sidelines, and pushed him toward Kendrick Perkins and Garnett on the front line. James constantly was trying to guess what was coming next, and that had a lot to do with the wild passes, the lost dribbles and strips.
Like everyone else, the Celtics tried to make James a jump shooter. It worked on Tuesday, but no one is counting on 2 of 18 ever happening again. By the fourth quarter, James started getting free with some pick-and-rolls and just missed easy shots. Game 1 looked like LeBron in the NBA Finals a year ago, when the San Antonio Spurs – at the time, the league's best defensive team – alternated between getting the ball out of James' hands and pushing him toward their front line.
"At the end of the day," Garnett said, "the bigs got to be there … and do whatever is (needed) to stop dudes. Posey did a good job, as well as anybody in the league."
Everyone else had left the locker room, and Posey was still sitting on his stool. There's no bragging out of him, no chest-pounding, no let-me-tell-you-what-I-did-to-LeBron. He didn't do it alone. They never do with these Celtics. This was a hideous basketball game, a miserable night for the purists, but Posey lives for getting down and dirty with a superstar.
"You just try to take certain things away from him," he said, "and make him work hard for everything."
This is LeBron James, and he doesn't go away now. That's all that Posey and his tired bones knew for sure late Tuesday at the Garden. Posey was Jonathan Papelbon for Game 1, Boston's closer. He popped the King's crown on Tuesday night, but James straightened it back and kept coming for him, kept coming for these Celtics. Worst night of his life, and he still had a chance to beat them in the final minute.
"He'll be back," Posey said, but what the old disciple of Riley didn't say was this: So will the best defense in basketball. So will he.