Ultimately, of course, this is not about the Celtics and Miami Heat. Not really. What this is about, truly, is the Celtics and LeBron James, a rivalry that says so much about a self-centered star of the league who regards himself as the axis for, well, everything.
Think of it: rivalries are almost always between teams or individuals, the wires almost never crossing between the two. Larry had Magic, for sure, but it was never Larry vs. the Lakers or Magic vs. the Celtics; it was Larry and Magic, Celtics-Lakers. On the ice this week, we will have the privilege of watching Bruins-Canadiens and Bruins-Flyers, just as we did in the ‘70s. And earlier this millennium, it was always Red Sox-Yankees, with Randy Johnson serving as a response to Curt Schilling in the same way that Keith Foulke served as an answer (at least for a year) for Mariano Rivera.
Almost always, the individuals were the subplots folded into an arms race between superpowers.
But not this time.
This is about LeBron, of course. It almost always is. Over the last three years, it was never about the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. James himself proved that last summer when, after again failing against the Celtics, this time in disgraceful fashion, he took it upon himself to alter the balance of power in the NBA Eastern Conference. The player changed teams instead of the other way around, James making it quite clear that the Cavs were responsible for his individual shortcomings.
Of the top six players in this upcoming Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Celtics and Heat, James is the only one without a title to his credit. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo all have one. So does Dwyane Wade. That leaves the self-proclaimed King – please, do not bring Chris Bosh into this conversation or you will embarrass yourself – who has done everything but throw himself a royal wedding.
For the record, in postseason play, James is 5-8 against the Celtics, losing one series in seven games (in 2008) and another in six (last year). In Games 4, 5 and 6 of last year’s conference semifinals between the Celtics and Cavs – the Cavs had a 2-1 lead in that series, folks - James shot 18 of 53 from the field, a woeful 34 percent. He went 2 of 13 from 3-point distance, an even more laughable 15.4 percent. James all but quit entirely in pivotal Game 5, collecting seven assists and six rebounds while taking just 14 shots, fewer than he has ever taken in any postseason game against the Celtics and tied for the third-lowest postseason total of his career.
OK, so we looked it up. James has played 76 games in his postseason career. There was only one occasion in which he had fewer than 20 points while simultaneously totaling fewer than 10 assists and fewer than 10 rebounds. That came in Game 5 last year. In every other postseason game he has played, James has had at least 20 points … or 10 rebounds … or 10 assists.
Except, of course, against the Celtics in Game 5 of his final year in Cleveland, in what was then a 2-2 series, and with free agency looming.
In a previous life, maybe James also played for the 1919 Chicago White Sox.
As one would expect, James has had some monster games against the Celtics in the playoffs. Facing elimination in Game 6 in 2008, he went for 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists while connecting on 13 of 15 free-throw attempts. In Game 7 of that series, albeit in defeat, James scored 45 points in a mano-a-mano duel with Paul Pierce. In the two Cleveland wins last year, James scored 35 and 38 points, respectively, connecting on 26 of 46 shots from the field while averaging 7.5 rebounds and 7 assists.
Naturally, all of that only made it more reprehensible and noticeable when he went into Operation Shutdown.
During the regular season, the Celtics defeated the Heat in 3 of 4 meetings, losing only a late-season finale at Miami that proved costly; as a result of solely that game, Miami has home-court advantage in this series. Overall, James played quite well in the four games – he averaged 28.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists while shooting 48.8 percent from the field – but the Celtics often seemed far more interested in controlling Wade than James.
Could it be that the Celtics know what everyone else knows, namely that Wade is to be feared far more than LeBron?
Whatever the case, James has no excuses this time around. Despite their Games 3 and 4 performances against the Knicks, the Celtics look more vulnerable now than they have at any other point during Garnett’s healthy existence in Boston. James is locked into the Heat for a while. He chose Miami over, among other places, Chicago. And before anyone suggests that this season is merely the first of many attempts for King James to dethrone the Celtics, let us all remember that the Celtics won their 17th championship in the very first year that Garnett, Pierce and Allen were united.
Prior to the start of that postseason, Celtics coach Doc Rivers dismissed any talk of their first postseason together being a learning experience for the new Big Three, eschewing such theorizing as a cop-out.
"I didn't buy into that," Rivers said. "I think that's what everyone else was saying, but that's not what I believed and I thought it was important for our team to not buy into that."
Now the Celtics are running out of time, leaving little question to the urgency with which the Celtics must operate.
James, meanwhile, still has his entire career in front of him.
Think he’ll use that as an excuse, too, should he lose again?
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