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Past is prologue for LeBron James and the Boston Celtics. Few things have remained constant during James’ 15-years in the NBA. Rivals have come and gone. The Detroit Pistons have regressed into a vegetative state, and the Indiana Pacers are merely a first-round speed bump. Out West, the San Antonio Spurs’ senescence is reaching critical mass, and Golden State, a modern juggernaut, wasn’t on James’ radar prior to his 30th birthday. As the Thanos of the shared LeBron universe, Boston has seemingly always been there antagonizing James.
A decade has passed since the Celtics grappled with James for the first time in a playoff atmosphere. Boston was trotting out a lineup that included Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. James was flanked by Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and Zydrunas Ilgauskas on a 45-win team.
In Game 1 of those 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals, we learned that a young James’ kryptonite was also green. Boston’s defense pressured him into a 12-point, 2-for-18 clunker that included 10 turnovers. After that horrific start, James would build up a head of steam and turn the series into a seven-game tilt.
In Game 7, James’ 45 points in 47 minutes was matched by Pierce, who dropped 41. But James’ supporting cast was crushed into pulp by Garnett, Allen and Rondo.
Two years later, Boston’s rematch with James was the nexus of his career quarter-life crisis. After Cleveland took a 2-1 lead on the Celtics in the semifinals, Boston’s defense tightened during the final three games of the series, holding the 2010 MVP to 18-of-53 shooting from the field. With Cleveland’s back up against the wall in a fight-or-flight Game 6, the Cavs lost 94-85. Seemingly resigned to his fate, James recorded a triple-double, but also committed nine turnovers.
To limit Boston’s influence on James’ career to just the postseason would be superficial. The successful unification of Garnett, Pierce and Allen influenced James’ decision to form his own NBA Voltron in Miami. James shook up the basketball world by heading to Miami, but Boston laid the foundation .
“I understood at that point in time that in order for me to compete for a championship and get to that next level, I had to figure out and get with some guys that could be on the same level as Paul, Ray, Rondo, KG, and those guys,” James told Cleveland.com in 2016. “I just didn’t feel like … to do it here, I was out calling guys in the summer time, trying to get guys to come here and guys just continued to decline offers from us.”
The 2011 postseason would deliver the least memorable chapter between James and the Celtics. Miami rolled over Boston in five games, establishing a new pecking order in the Eastern Conference.
It was the 2012 Conference finals showdown with Boston that is regarded as the most thrilling episode in the saga. It was also an inflection point for Boston’s rivalry with James. Miami was hunting for its first title with James and Boston was fending off their twilight.
In Game 2, Rondo had one of the most unexpected out-of-body experiences in playoff history, exploding for 44 points. However, James parried with 34 points, seven assists and 10 boards in the win and got a little help from his friends Wade and Bosh. Throughout the series, the trio would stomp out Boston fire with potent efficacy.
After Pierce’s Game 5 dagger triple , James proved how resolute he was in a pair of elimination game victories. His 45 points and 15 boards in Game 6 was followed with 31 and 12 in Game 7.
If one had to point to the evolution of James, this series was it as he averaged 33.6 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and 1.3 blocks and ended that iteration of the Celtics. Garnett and Pierce were traded to Brooklyn for a bounty of first-round picks. The Heat poached Ray Allen from Boston in the off-season, fracturing Boston’s continuity and giving Miami a sharpshooter who would eventually rescue Miami’s repeat bid the next year.
James wouldn’t see Boston green again in the postseason until he was donning a Cavs jersey again three years later. In 2015, the Celtics were an overachieving, fringe playoff squad that traded for diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline.
Even when the stakes were low between James and Boston, the reverberations often echoed long after the series ended. Cleveland’s 2015 first-round sweep of Boston would have been anti-climatic were it not for Kelly Olynyk dislocating Kevin Love’s shoulder in Game 4.
James’ penultimate matchup with the Celtics last May became a rout when Thomas re-aggravated a pre-existing hip injury and sat for the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals. Boston’s only victory occurred on Cleveland’s home floor in Game 3 when James tallied 11 points.
Cleveland would eventually take care of their Eastern Conference demolition business and advance to the Finals, however, Thomas’ injury became the Cavs’ burden when he arrived as a central part of the Kyrie Irving trade.
At this juncture, James is reaching the same inflection point Boston did after he bounced them in 2012. Free agency is looming as he defends his Eastern Conference crown from a young group of Celtics. Defend home court and James can stave off the end of his streak of seven consecutive Finals berths.
Given the makeup of Boston’s versatile lineup of precocious lottery picks and perennial All-Stars, this may be the last opportunity for James to gain the upper hand on his greatest rivals.
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