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As They Always Seem To, the Celtics Stand Between LeBron James and His Future

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IMay 14, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts next to Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris (13) during the third quarter of Game 1 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference Finals, Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

BOSTON — LeBron James strolled out of the visiting locker room at TD Garden, resplendent in a gray three-piece suit and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

He exchanged three daps with a Nike employee and trudged toward the interview room. At a fork in the hallway, he was momentarily unsure which path led more directly to his date with the media.

Other than that, this building—every path, every crevice, every pitfall—is utterly familiar to him.

It's the scene of some of his greatest postseason triumphs and most bitter disappointments—the outcome often having a seismic impact on his career, one of the most mesmerizing basketball has ever seen.

"Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you've ever followed my history," James said Sunday night after the Cleveland Cavaliers dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 108-83, to a new version of his old nemesis, the Boston Celtics.

"So I've got a great sense of the way they played me today and how I'll play going into Game 2," he said.

BOSTON, MA - MAY 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers speaks with the media following Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Boston Celtics on May 13, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOT
Brian Babineau/Getty Images
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It's the same two teams that met here a year ago, constructed quite differently. Kyrie Irving is a Celtic now, though unavailable as he recovers from left knee surgery. Evidently, he's not as vital as most thought to the Celtics' hopes of advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010, the last time they beat LeBron in the postseason.

That era is where my mind kept drifting Sunday as I watched James "feel out" these Celtics, as he put it. And it's where I tried to get his mind to go in the postgame news conference, an event with which James seems to be growing increasingly bored.

"Every year is a different challenge," he said, "no matter if you're going against the previous Celtics team or the present. They've always been well-coached. They've always had multiple guys on the floor that can do multiple things. And they've always had two-way players. That challenge has never...it's not like it's been different. It's always been that same challenge."

The same stakes, to be sure...but in my estimation, this is different.

During a five-year stretch from 2008-12, James faced the Celtics four times in the postseason—three times in the conference semifinals and once in the conference finals. The foe was much different, though—a collection of future Hall of Famers, a feisty point guard named Rajon Rondo and a raspy, media darling coach named Doc Rivers.

The Celtics were James' albatross, and Cleveland's 4-2 loss to Boston in the 2010 conference semis ultimately propelled him into free agency on a mission to form his own Big Three—one that could finally get Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen off his back and out of his way.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

James was 25 then. As his first tour of duty in Cleveland was unraveling, the current coach of the Celtics, Brad Stevens, was the 33-year-old head coach of the Butler Bulldogs. Funny, that's how old James is now.

As Stevens was leading Butler to back-to-back NCAA championship games, planting the seeds for a jump to the NBA, James was teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. The Heat beat the Celtics in the 2011 conference semifinals and 2012 conference finals; Boston's Big Three era was over.

In its wake came a franchise metamorphosis, thanks to the brilliance of Celtics president Danny Ainge. Out of the rubble, the formidable foe now standing before James was born.

"I think we're very alert to the fact that we'll get a heavyweight punch on Tuesday night," said Stevens, who drew up a game plan that held the Cavs to a dismal 4-of-26 from three-point range. "It's another great challenge, another opportunity to experience something for this team."

James, on perhaps the most singularly brilliant postseason run of his career, will be called upon to deliver that punch. In Boston, he's been put to that test more than anywhere else.

There was the epic Game 7 in the 2008 conference semifinals, in which James (45 points) out-dueled Pierce (41 points) but lost 97-92 in his first series against Boston's Big Three.

In the 2010 semifinals, James pushed the Cavs to a 2-1 lead, only to see the Celtics reel off three straight wins. James' 3-of-14 disappearing act at home in Game 5 went down as one of the most puzzling postseason performances of his career and fueled those who were quick to question his big-game mettle.

He responded with 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 6 at Boston, but once again it wasn't enough to hold off the Celtics.

Afterward, as the clock officially started ticking on his free agency, James said, "A friend of mine told me after the game, 'I guess you have to go through a lot of nightmares before you finally accomplish your dream.' And that's what's going on individually for myself right now."

That was pre-championship LeBron, before the three titles (two in Miami, one in Cleveland) and seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. So much has changed since then. And yet it's fitting that James finds himself at another crossroads, with free agency looming again, on the Garden's familiar parquet floor and beneath its 17 championship banners.

Long gone are the graybeards, dagger-throwers and ghosts of Celtics past. No longer is it just James and Pierce, wrestling man-to-man, possession after possession. These Celtics are athletic and fearless, able to switch every screen and put a conga line of fresh bodies in James' path. They're young too—young enough, perhaps, not to know any better.

"We've got a lot of guys that just don't care," Marcus Smart was saying in the Celtics' locker room. "Our whole life, we've been fighting bigger opponents than us. Playing LeBron and that kind of team, they're here for a reason because of the talent that they have. But we have talent as well, and we have guys that are fearless."

BOSTON, MA - MAY 13: Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics is defended by LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second quarter in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on May 13, 2018 in Boston,
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Smart played a pivotal role in the team effort it took to corral James and force him into a 5-of-16 shooting night with 15 points and seven turnovers—the first time this postseason that James has failed to register 20 points. So did another agitator, Marcus Morris, who managed to find the time to put up 21 points and 10 rebounds when he wasn't chest-to-chest with James.

"Our confidence level is very high," Morris said. "The younger guys to the older guys, we think we can compete and play with anybody."

Jaylen Brown, an elder statesman at 21, had 23 points and eight rebounds—not backing down from his comments leading up to the game that if James is guarding him, "I'm going to make him pay."

No fear from these Celtics. At the same time, none from No. 23 either.

"I have zero level of concern at this stage," James said. "I didn't go to college, so it's not March Madness. ... I've been down 0-1; I've been down 0-2. I've been down before in the postseason."

Finally, on his way into the interview room Sunday night, James stopped to hug a man wearing a Celtics jersey with the number zero on it. It was Tatum's father, Justin. They exchanged a few words, and James finally made his way behind a curtain on his way the interview stage—wearing a huge smile.

Yes, he's been here before.

Many times.

   

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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