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On Basketball

Great expectations abound for LeBron

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

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MIAMI — With a wooly beard that accurately displays years of playoff experience despite being only 26 years old, LeBron James downplayed the possibility of exorcising demons by beating the Boston Celtics.

The Boston Celtics. The team that James despises, but respects, the most. The team that eliminated his Cleveland Cavaliers twice in the postseason in the past three years. It was the final elimination that is likely the reason James stands here at the AmericanAirlines Arena practice facility and not in suburban Cleveland.

James was emotionless yesterday as he addressed the media one day before his Miami Heat face the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Perhaps he is camouflaging his emotions from the public. His teammates know how badly he wants to beat the Celtics.

They are his Detroit Pistons to Michael Jordan. They are the team of veterans who capitalize on his youth and zealousness. They are unafraid of his stunning talents and physical ability. Even Clubber Lang was beaten, and the Celtics have figured out how to neutralize James’s effectiveness with dazzling teamwork.

So there is no fear that comes from the Celtics, even though the Heat feature three All-Stars. As this potentially epic series begins today in Miami, the pressure appears to be squarely on the Heat.

Win and they continue their quest to win “not seven, not eight’’ titles as James promised in July. Lose and the hasty composition of the new Big Three is considered a short-term failure and NBA executives and fans — especially those in Cleveland — relish their fate.

“It is personal,’’ James said. “You don’t want to keep getting beat by the same team. The same team keeps sending you home, planning a vacation. So it is personal.’’

James has enjoyed his share of stellar playoff moments, but those moments were scarce last season, especially in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics when he appeared uninterested and lethargic as the Celtics blasted the Cavaliers, 120-88. James still managed 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists, but it was hardly a riveting performance.

Following the playoffs, Cavaliers fans, including owner Dan Gilbert, accused James of quitting in Game 5, resigned to the fact that Boston was a better team and his teammates were ill-equipped to assist in winning the series. LeBron returned to tally 27 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists in the 94-85 Game 6 loss, but it was too late, his reputation had already been damaged, his legacy tarnished. Perhaps winning this series won’t completely restore that image (especially in Cleveland) but it will help James move forward.

There was a perception that James officially moved forward during “The Decision,’’ but that was only the first step. Regardless of what he did during the regular season — he was briefly an MVP candidate until Derrick Rose willed the Chicago Bulls to the No. 1 seed — he would only be judged on what he did during the postseason.

James is title-less. Teammate Dwyane Wade has a championship and so do the four All-Stars opposing James this afternoon. Their legacies have already been built. They will walk into bars, or step on to the Hall of Fame stage in Springfield as a champion. LeBron can only walk on that stage as a superstar and superior player. Those are nice qualities, but not quite good enough to make his hero Michael Jordan give the nod of approval.

So this is not only personal for James, but career-altering. While he has plenty of time to win NBA titles, he doesn’t have plenty of times to beat this current crew of Celtics. NBA rivalries are difficult to come by. They come once every decade and now presents a small window of opportunity for the Heat and Celtics.

While the Celtics are aging, they remain an elite team. The Pistons overcame a Los Angeles Lakers team that wasn’t quite at its peak in 1989, but still championship-caliber. The Celtics are in the same position. Victories over the Celtics may be easier to come by than three years ago, but they aren’t easy.

When asked about Game 5 yesterday, James was coy. He has heard the rumors that he shut it down as a protest and had mentally checked out. But he refuses to acknowledge that or any mistakes he made in Cleveland.

“My [Game 5] performance as far as what?’’ he asked. “Nah, that’s corny. I don’t understand that type of stuff.’’

Whether ignoring his critics serves as a salve for his bitter ending in Cleveland is uncertain, but James undeniably realizes that he will be judged heavily on whether the Heat win this series. The Celtics are his bugaboo, his bogeyman. They know how to defend him and sometimes his greatness prevails when he responds with silky jumpers and others he falters when he commits turnovers or forces shots.

We will learn beginning today how much experience and wisdom he possesses when he faces the same aggressive defense design to contain him. How he reacts could determine whether he is a champion or merely a great player.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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