With series now even, Celtics facing a familiar source of adversity: LeBron James

CLEVELAND – For 15 years LeBron James has run roughshod through the Eastern Conference, devastating franchises and leaving a growing body count in his wake. The upstart Indiana Pacers fell, the Atlanta Hawks too, while the Toronto Raptors are on the brink of possibly being disassembled. And after dropping 44 points in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 111-102 Game 4 win on Monday night, James’ message was unmistakable: Boston, I got you, too.

Lost in James’ victimization of Indiana — both the Paul George/Roy Hibbert version, and the current one — and his humbling of Toronto, is this: James has owned the Celtics. His Heat team effectively ended Boston’s Big Three era, and James’ Cavs went 8-1 against the Celtics in the previous three postseasons. A young, rising Boston team was broomed out of the playoffs in 2015; a top-seeded one fell in just five games two years later.

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Here comes James, effortlessly posting 40-plus-point nights, the villain in Boston’s feel-good story — again. Two games into this series and early season Celtics matchups with Golden State were being discussed, while reporters groaned at the price of hotels in the Boston area in June. Two games later and James has reclaimed control of the conference finals, threatening to turn the Celtics’ dream season into a nightmare.

The Cavaliers romped to a 30-point win in Game 3, and while a late surge by Boston kept Game 4 relatively close, this one was rarely in doubt. A 34-18 first quarter set the tone, and a physical Cavs team (50 points in the paint) refused to allow the Celtics closer than seven anytime after. Cleveland shot better than 50 percent for the second straight game, while Boston bricked layups and dunks — 15 in all — like the rim had a lid on it.

LeBron James once again towered over the Celtics on Monday night. (Getty)
LeBron James once again towered over the Celtics on Monday night. (Getty)

“I thought we missed a couple of really good opportunities on offense that were really good shots,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Then I thought we did try to hit some home runs on some other shots as we were coming back. Those will catch up with you.”

All season Boston has been defined by its defense, a stingy unit that finished the regular season as the NBA’s most efficient. Yet in this series, the Celtics are reminded: There isn’t a defense James hasn’t seen, a scheme he can’t beat. The Celtics aren’t in a rush to reveal defensive strategy, but whatever it is, James has adapted to it.

“He’s the best in the game at evaluating the court and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it,” Stevens said. “You just have to battle. You have to make it as hard as possible because he’s going to find a matchup that he ultimately wants.”

Against Toronto, C.J. Miles wore the target, with Kyle Korver screens setting up James/Miles one-on-ones. Against Boston, it’s Terry Rozier sporting the bull’s-eye, with James exploiting the Celtics’ switch-happy defense to get the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Rozier on his back. Boston hates to double, willing to live with a contested two if it keeps an opponent’s 3-point shooters in check. James and the Cavs have identified that — and taken advantage of it.

“Instead of having three guys on the opposite side, they always have someone at the basket, so we’re in scramble mode,” Rozier said. “We [have] got to have better communication on the back side. That’s what they are doing different.”

For all of James’ marvelous talents, for his overwhelming size, his point guard’s court vision, his vastly improved — though still streaky — 3-point shot, James’ mind remains his greatest strength. For years NBA coaches, with staffs that go five or six deep, have been devising plans to slow James. For years, James has foiled them. He absorbs a defense, processes it and counters as well as any player, ever.

“There’s not a defense that I have not seen,” James said. “There’s only so many you can provide on a basketball floor, and I’ve seen them all. Pretty much through when I started to play high school until now, so I’ve seen them all. [Boston] does a really good job with their communication, trying to force you to do things that you [don’t] do so well or kind of second-guess yourself. For me, that’s why I put the work in between days and try to work on my game to where you can’t force me to do something I don’t want to do, or I don’t have too much of a weakness.”

Boston has decided it will live with the mismatches, which means James will continue to exploit them. “He’s going to go after whoever he wants to go after,” Stevens said. What the Celtics can’t live with are 14 points from Korver, 13 from Tristan Thompson and a beating on the boards (47-37) for the second game in a row. It isn’t just James heading back to Boston for Game 5 with confidence — his teammates are, too.

“I think we’ve played like a different team,” Korver said. “Those first two games in Boston, that wasn’t us. … I think, hopefully, we can take a lot of what we have done here the last couple of games.”

They will take James, and against Boston, that may be enough. The Celtics are a different team from the one the Cavs swept in ’15, but several key players — Horford, Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart — were James’ victims last season, and that memory is still fresh. Like a boxer, James took two haymakers from the Celtics in the first two games and has countered with a pair of his own.

Addressing the media, Stevens said these were the moments NBA teams live for.

“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals,” Stevens said. “It’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again.”

But does his team feel the same? In the first round, Boston was blown out in Game 3 by Milwaukee and narrowly defeated in Game 4. The Celtics rallied to win that series in seven. But the Bucks aren’t the Cavs, and as good as Giannis Antetokounmpo is, he isn’t LeBron. And an NBA Finals trip wasn’t on the line, either.

So do the Celtics have the same confidence as their coach?

“Oh, of course,” Horford said. “As a group, we’re excited to be going back home. We understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity.”

An opportunity indeed. For Boston, Game 5 is a chance to show its resilience, to push back against James, to take a step toward potentially ending an era of its own. For James, it’s an opportunity to tack these Celtics on his list of victims.

“We know it’s going to be a hostile environment,” James said. “We have to have our same mindset we had when we came home for these two games.”

After wrapping up his media session, James ducked down a hallway, his longtime friend and agent, Rich Paul, alongside him, and disappeared into a parking lot. The Celtics-killer is coming to Boston, and a young team will have to dig deep to stop him.

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