BOSTON — LeBron James had been here before, in this cacophonous sea of green, tussling with legends and ghosts, wrestling for his legacy and supremacy. How many times had the Boston Celtics clogged his path? How many times had they tested him, tortured him, taunted him?
Across five seasons and four playoff series, the Boston Garden served as a personal crucible, where James authored some of his greatest moments and absorbed some of his greatest heartbreaks.
This is where he scored 45 points, twice: a loss in 2008, a win in 2012. This is where he stripped off his Cavaliers jersey for the final time, in 2010, at perhaps the lowest point in his career.
LeBron James was back Thursday night, and it seemed so familiar and improbable all at once: James, dressed again in Cavs wine and gold, after four years in Miami white. The Celtics, back in the playoffs, two years after detonating their roster.
"It's the same for me," James said, after leading the Cavaliers to a 103-95 victory and a 3-0 lead in this first-round series. "I get great feelings, I get eerie feelings when I come in this building."
This night ended pleasantly enough for James, who scored 31 points and assisted on the Kevin Love three-pointer that sealed the win, nudging the Cavs closer to their first series victory in James' second tour. There will be no upset, save for this one: that the Celtics were back in LeBron's path at all.
"Tanking." That's what the Celtics were accused of, repeatedly, after that franchise-altering trade, and never mind that they made precisely the right move at the right time—trading two declining stars for a cache of draft picks while they still could.
Twenty-two months later, the trade can be seen in a more nuanced, more accurate light. Garnett, who has bounced from Brooklyn to Minnesota, is a shell of himself. Pierce, who has since migrated to Washington, is a vital role player, but nothing more.
Meanwhile, the Celtics are a playoff team again, ahead of any theoretical schedule, because of a determined young coach (Brad Stevens) and a roster stuffed with overachievers, all aided by the weakness of the Eastern Conference.
No one here cares that the Celtics slipped into the playoffs with a losing record. They are here, absorbing vital experience—a rebuilding project simmering under the playoff glare.
"We're really trying to build a culture around playing the right way, playing together, doing the right things," Celtics president Danny Ainge told Bleacher Report late Thursday. "We've never taken a step back from that. And you've got to give Brad a lot of credit—with all the new players and all the new faces that came through, I think he's done a great job, gotten the most out of a lot of players."
A lot of players. Thirty-three players have worn the Celtics uniform in Stevens' two seasons, as Ainge keeps acquiring and selling assets like a manic, late-'90s home flipper.
In December, Ainge sent away Rajon Rondo, the last remaining star from the 2008 championship team. A month later, he traded Jeff Green, the Celtics' last reliable scorer.
Through it all, Avery Bradley stood defiant, determined to make the season meaningful no matter who pulled on the uniform.
"It's funny," said Bradley, one of the few remaining ties to the glory years. "I said at the beginning of the year, even though we were a young team—and people kind of looked at me like I was crazy—that I thought we had a chance to go to the playoffs. And now we're here, and we shocked everybody, and we can do the same thing next year."
There are no stars on this Boston roster, no one to approximate the talent of James, or his latest co-stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Not a single current Celtic could start for the Cavaliers—or for any of the top playoff teams.
The Celtics lack scorers, three-point shooting, rim protection and a frontline point guard. They're all tenacity and obstinance, a collection of fierce, selfless role players, from Bradley to Marcus Smart to Jae Crowder to Isaiah Thomas to Jared Sullinger. For three games, this unheralded group has pushed James' star-studded crew to the limits, conceding nothing.
Game 2 went down to the final two minutes, requiring a late layup by James and two Irving free throws to seal a 99-91 win. It was even closer in Game 3, with the Celtics pulling within three points with 2:45 to play and hovering just five points behind with 1:14 to go.
"I like the guys that are here right now," Bradley said.
James has logged 42 minutes in every game of this series—a testament to the Celtics' resolve. He has been collared by Evan Turner, harassed by Crowder, shadowed by Sullinger.
Before Game 3, a member of Cleveland's traveling party remarked that the Celtics had put "an appropriate fear" into the Cavaliers with their unyielding effort in Game 2.
Even Baron Davis, the former NBA All-Star, saluted the Celtics' pluck Thursday, declaring on Twitter, "I like this Boston squad. They are young and hungry…they will learn a lot from this series."
No, the Celtics never had a chance against the Cavaliers, but they are raising their stature even as Ainge plots his next move. The Celtics now have an admirable assortment of promising young players and a killer cache of first-round picks—potentially 10 in the next four drafts.
Somewhere out there, in another NBA town, a star player is becoming disgruntled, or impatient. When that star finally demands a trade—as Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden and Kevin Love have all done in recent years—Ainge will be ready with a bustling package of quality players and picks.
"We've done a lot of work in the last couple years to get us to this point," Ainge said, "and now is the hard stuff, where we have to turn that into something, turn that into something good."
Ainge has pulled off the impossible before, landing Garnett and Ray Allen within weeks of each other in 2007 for two separate packages of players and picks. While cynics expected Ainge to let this team bottom out, to position himself to draft an Andrew Wiggins or a Karl-Anthony Towns, Ainge instead kept adding useful players—Crowder (in the Rondo deal), Thomas (at the trade deadline)—and more picks, all in pursuit of a greater goal.
"There's only a limited amount of transcendent players in the game," Ainge said.
"You never know when they're going to come available. When KG and Ray Allen were available, we were in a position to be able to do it. … When James Harden came available, we weren't in position to do a deal like that, or even get in the game."
But today, Ainge says, "We're in the game if an opportunity like that presents itself."
In the meantime, the Celtics are enjoying this rare moment—of careful planning, modest optimism and a brief burst of playoff euphoria. In some ways, it's the best of all worlds, at least for a team with no stars. The present is enjoyable, and the future reasonably bright.
"There are no guarantees," Ainge said. "I'm glad that we got some good young pieces that we really like and can continue to develop. We got a fantastic young coach. It's a good starting point."
If you ignored the names on the jerseys Thursday night, this could have been 2008, or 2010, or 2012. The sights, sounds and tension were the same—the furious boos for James, the booming chorus of "Let's Go, Celtics!" The faces have changed, but the building still rocks.
"The great thing about being here," James said of Celtics fans, is "they're loyal to one thing and one thing only, and that's green. That's all they see, and that's all they care about. And for being a competitor, for me being someone that they know personally, to be able to come out here and perform in front of those guys, it means a lot."
James added, "For me to be able to have some type of history in this city, it means a lot for, I guess for my legacy."
It's unclear when the next generation of Celtics stars will arrive or bloom. But don't be surprised if, some April or May night in the future, LeBron James is back here again, staring down shamrocks and ghosts.
You get the feeling he'd welcome the chance.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.