When the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers completed a blockbuster off-season trade of star guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas in 2017, thoughts of a fierce, dream 2018 Eastern finals showdown immediately came to mind.
Yet with Thomas since traded again and Irving out for the playoffs with a knee injury, some of the juice and enmity has gone out of the much-anticipated showdown series.
Indeed, neither team was expected to get here after the Cavs struggled through a rollercoaster season and Boston was hit by injuries all season, including a grisly season-ender to newly-acquired star forward Gordon Hayward early on opening night - ironically, at Cleveland.
But resilient Boston and LeBron-led Cleveland are meeting again for the second year in a row, and third time overall, in the conference final round of the playoffs.
The Cavaliers narrowly survived a seven-game first round series vs. Indiana before somewhat surprisingly blowing out top seed Toronto 4-0 in the conference semis.
The hobbled Celtics also navigated a tough seven-game first round series against Milwaukee. Boston then took down red-hot arch-rival Philadelphia 4-1 in the second round to set up a conference finals rematch vs. Cleveland.
Amazingly, the rematch marks the first back-to-back conference finals showing for the Celtics since Larry Bird led Boston to five straight ECFs from 1984-88. In fact, during his first nine seasons - back when the East was a much tougher beast to tame - Bird guided Boston to the conference finals eight times, winning five.
The Celtics lead 4-3 in post-season series vs. the Cavaliers, but trail 20-19 in games played heading into the 2018 matchup. Cleveland has won the last two series in 2015 and 2017 by a combined 8-1 count to grab a slim all-time lead in games won.
But their first five series were surprisingly close and hard-fought given the fact that traditional power Boston has won a record 17 NBA titles, while the 1970 expansion Cavaliers have won just a single crown in their Four Finals appearances, all since 2007.
The Boston/Cleveland post-season history dates back to 1976, when the foes first met in a very close six-game conference final series.
1976 Eastern Conference Finals: Boston 4, Cleveland 2
Their first meeting was perhaps the most meaningful and close so far between the two franchises. The aging Celtics (54-28) were looking for their 13th championship banner and second in three years, while the seventh-year expansion Cavs (49-33), once disdainfully referred to as the “Cadavaliers”, were in their first playoff run.
Future Celtic 1981 championship coach Bill Fitch had served as Cleveland head coach since the team’s inception. Fitch expertly built the club from expansion laughingstock to NBA contender in just six seasons featuring a combination of dark humor, toughness from his Marine Corps drill instructor background and most of all, strong hoops coaching acumen.
Cleveland came into the series off a thrilling 4-3 win over perennial 1970’s power Washington in the eastern semifinals. The Bullets had knocked off defending champion Boston in the 1975 eastern finals before losing in an upset sweep to the Warriors and Rick Barry in the Finals, and were a consistent title contender in the decade. They made four Finals appearances in the 1970s, winning it all in 1978.
In game seven of the 1976 conference semis, northeast Ohio native and NBA veteran guard Dick Snyder banked in a one-footed runner from the left side in the final seconds to give the Cavaliers an 87-85 lead over the favored Bullets.
Cleveland then dodged a last-second corner jumper by star guard Phil Chenier to clinch a memorable series. The upset win touched off a wild celebration, capping a classic series later known as “The Miracle at Richfield.”
In just the first playoff series in Cleveland history, three of the four Cavalier wins came by a combined total of a mere four points in the thrill-soaked battle.
In the meantime, Boston got past Buffalo and 6-9, three-time scoring champion Bob McAdoo 4-2 in their own tough eastern semis to set up the conference finals vs. Cleveland. Just as in 1974, the Celtics would beat Buffalo 4-2 in the same round en route to the NBA title.
Foot injuries would play a key part in the 1976 conference finals, with 14th-season Celtic legend John Havlicek slowed by a painful plantar fascia injury, and solid Cav center Jim Chones out with a broken bone in his foot.
The 6-11 Chones suffered his ill-timed injury during practice on May 4, just two days before the Cav/Celtic series was to start, putting a damper on their big win over Washington.
Chones had averaged a team-high 15.8 points, nine rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. Ironically, the Marquette product had not missed a single game out of 89 contests played that season up to the conference finals.
The series featured a strong Ohio flavor, as Fitch had also coached at Bowling Green State while several key players on each team hailed from the Buckeye state. Former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel, incidentally, also served as the first Cavalier ball boy in the early 1970s.
Long-time All-Star center and Akron product Nate Thurmond had been acquired from Chicago early in the season to support Chones, but at nearly 35 and hampered by extremely gimpy knees, he was not able to play major minutes well anymore. Yet he summoned up his veteran guile, skill and pride to play well in the series.
In game one, Boston broke away from a 77-77 tie with a big fourth quarter to post a 111-99 Garden victory. Eastern Ohio native Havlicek led the Celtics with 26 points while Snyder and Campy Russell topped the Cavaliers with 21 points apiece.
In game two at Boston, the Cavs were poised to even the series with an upset as the upstarts led 71-68 heading to the final period.
But the inexperienced Cleveland squad couldn’t seal the deal on the road as the Celtic big three of Havlicek, Dave Cowens and JoJo White led an 11-0 run which gave the hosts an 81-73 lead.
The Cavs rallied within 83-81, yet Boston reeled off six straight points. Defensive ace Thurmond fouled out midway through the final period to deal size-challenged Cleveland a fatal blow.
Hondo and Cowens then took turns feeding each other for layups to put the game away, 94-89. White topped the victors with 24 points, while Havlicek tallied 20, Charlie Scott 16 and Cowens 15. Snyder and Bingo Smith paced the Cavs with 16 points each.
Back in Richfield for game three, the Cavs were inspired by an NBA playoff record crowd of 21,564 to a hard-fought 83-78 victory.
Former Notre Dame super-scorer guard Austin Carr scored 17 points off the Cleveland bench, including a big jumper with 1:01 left that gave the Cavs an insurmountable 80-72 lead.
Lefty guard Jim Cleamons, a Columbus, Ohio native and Ohio State alum, led the winners with 18 points. White netted 22 and Cowens scored 19, but a hobbling Hondo was held to nine.
In game four three days later before another record sellout crowd in Richfield, the Celtics edged within 79-77 early in the fourth period.
But the Cavs finished on a 27-10 run to knot the series 2-2 with a 106-87 win. Another northeast Ohio native and ex-Buckeye, backup center Luke Witte (best known for his victim role in the infamous brawl at Minnesota in 1972), scored six points for the Cavs in the win.
In the trip back to his home state, the 36-year Havlicek had to sit out most of the game with a worsening foot injury, and was held scoreless.
Sharpshooting forward Bobby “Bingo” Smith, the only original Cavalier left from its first expansion season, canned 13 of 17 shots from the field to tally a game-high 27 points. White led Boston with 23.
Back in Beantown for the pivotal fifth game, things were looking grim for the Celtics with long-time playoff hero Havlicek hurting and questionable to even play. Still, he suited up, went through warm-ups and waited patiently for his chance to compete.
The pressure was on Boston to win at home and snap a two-game skid. They did not want to go back to northeast Ohio and that raucous crowd down 3-2.
Hondo sat out the first half as 14-year veteran forward Don Nelson replaced him, and the teams battled to a 42-42 halftime tie.
Boston edged ahead by four going to the final period. Meanwhile, Havlicek still sat on the bench and watched, waiting for his opportunity to contribute.
With Celtic coach Tom Heinsohn having been ejected, assistant John Killilea finally inserted Havlicek into the game with 5:03 left and the score tied 80-80. His appearance brought the Garden crowd to its feet for a standing ovation.
The calculated psychological ploy also helped lift Boston.
”They are playing their trump card,” exclaimed CBS announcer Brent Musburger as number 17 entered the game. Thurmond had just fouled out and was also called for a technical arguing the whistle, leading to two Cowens free throws (plus the technical shot by White) that provided an 83-80 Celtic lead.
But moments later a 19-footer by Campy Russell gave the Cavs an 84-83 edge. White answered by sinking a left corner jumper to put Boston back in front.
Yet the plucky Cavaliers regained an 86-85 lead on Russell’s patented fadeaway 17-foot left elbow jumper over Paul Silas.
Playing with five fouls, a determined Cowens wheeled into the lane and was hacked on a hook shot. He converted two clutch free throws to give Boston an 87-86 edge with 3:08 left.
With the 6-11 veteran Thurmond disqualified, the redhead would have his way with slender 6-10 rookie John Lambert.
After Lambert was whistled for a moving screen, Dave took a Havlicek bounce pass and drained a foul line jumper over the USC rookie for an 89-86 lead.
The Cavs replaced Lambert on defense with rugged 6-8 defensive ace Jim Brewer. Cowens missed a baseline shot vs. Brewer, but Scott rebounded the weak-side miss, was fouled and sank two free shots with 1:54 to go for a 91-86 lead.
Two Cleamons free tosses cut the deficit to three 10 seconds later. Cowens again scored a critical basket on a quick-release 13-footer over Lambert. But the rookie responded by bouncing in a short lane jumper to make it 93-90 at the 1:16 mark.
Havlicek forced a Russell right baseline miss with his characteristic tight defense, yet White airballed the ensuing fast break drive that might have put the game out of reach.
Heading back the other way, Lambert was fouled in transition and calmly converted a pair of crucial free tosses to inch the Cavs within 93-92 with 35 ticks yet to play.
Seated courtside near the Celtic bench, Red Auerbach rubbed his sweating forehead in consternation. Perhaps more than anyone, he knew how important it was for Boston to hold on and win game five at home. He probably wanted to go sit on the bench and take over the reins with Heinsohn ejected...
The Celtis went to Cowens and he missed a spinning drive, but his board-banging buddy Silas came to the rescue. The veteran forward missed an initial tap try, yet kept battling.
With great second effort, Silas willed in a crucial tip of his own miss. The lunging tap banked in high off the glass to give Boston a 95-92 edge with 24 seconds to go.
The tireless Silas led the NBA in offensive rebounds that season at age 33, but none were bigger than those two in the final minute of game five.
The speedy Austin Carr quickly drove on White and sank a 10-foot banker from the right side of the lane to pull the Cavs to 95-94 with 14 seconds remaining.
With 11 seconds left, Nelson in-bounded near halfcourt to the veteran Celtic playoff ace, Havlicek. Even though he had not tried a single shot all game, the team trusted its clutch star in this pressure situation, knowing he would likely be fouled.
Hondo was hacked by fellow Ohio State alum Cleamons. And true to form, despite having sat out almost the entire game, Havlicek cleanly splashed both pressure-packed charity stripers.
Hondo’s only points of the game - on his only shots of the battle - gave Boston a key 97-94 lead, a big advantage in the pre three-point shot era.
After using their final timeout, Cleveland advanced the ball to midcourt. But a tremendous contesting of Jim Brewer’s in-bounds pass by the high-flying Cowens led to a Silas deflection that Havlicek corraled.
Hondo dribbled off several precious seconds before passing to White, who was fouled as the waning seconds ticked off the clock.
Two more free throws by White with four seconds left capped a 99-94 Boston win, allowing the C’s to capture a 3-2 series lead. A last-second shot by Cleamons missed and ended up, fittingly, in the right hand of Havlicek as time expired.
Boston outscored Cleveland 19-14 down the homestretch after Havlicek came into the game.
Cowens, who hails from Newport, Kentucky, located just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, led Boston with 26 points and 11 rebounds. Scott netted 22 points, White tallied 17 and Nelson scored 15 starting in Hondo’s place. Silas contributed 13 caroms.
Southpaw Cleamons topped six Cavs in double figures with 18 markers. Russell added 17 markers and Thurmond tallied 13 with 10 boards.
The home team had won all five games of the tight series heading into game six back at the Richfield Coliseum. Another huge crowd spurred the Cavs to a 46-43 halftime lead as Hondo again sat out in favor of fellow veteran Nelson.
Cleveland clung to a precarious 69-67 edge heading to the final stanza, hoping its homecourt magic would again pull them through.
Yet the experienced, guileful Boston club inched in front 86-85 late in the fourth period. Charlie Scott then came up with a timely steal on a pass Russell telegraphed to the right wing. Scott sped downcourt for a breakaway layup that gave the Celtics an 88-85 lead.
The backbreaking steal and score stunned the Cavs and their partisan crowd.
White then made a driving scoop shot, Cowens added a short hook and the Celtics held on for a 94-87 victory to eliminate the spunky Cavs. For the 14th time in 20 years, Boston advanced to the NBA Finals.
White led all scorers with 29 points, while Cowens tallied 21 and Scott 20. Carr topped the Cavs with 26 points. Poised Boston outscored Cleveland 27-18 in the final period as their playoff experience showed, while Cleveland’s lack thereof in crunch time was exposed.
Cavalier fans have long lamented that had Chones been healthy, Cleveland would have won. Maybe so, but it is a dubious assertion, since the argument ignores the fact that the hard-running Havlicek was also slowed considerably by a torn plantar fascia tissue.
Plus, Thurmond averaged a very respectable 10.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 52 percent from the field in place of Chones. Hondo was limited to just 10.2 ppg in the series over 24.8 minutes per game, roughly half his normal average output.
Ironically, Chones was normally such an ironman that he played every game in eight of his first nine professional seasons from 1972-81. Havlicek was similarly durable, but for an even longer period of 16 seasons.
Thus even more reason that Chones’s absence from the biggest series of his career to that point remains a sore point for he and the Cavaliers. Big Jim later won a ring as an unsung power forward for the 1980 Lakers.
Furthermore the Cavs, in their first playoff foray, just weren’t battle-tested enough to beat a veteran team that had won the title in 1974, had been to five straight eastern finals - and was used to playing under the pressure of great expectations that came with being the most tradition-rich club in the NBA.
In the taut, defense-oriented series each team surpassed 100 points only once. White led all scorers with 22.5 ppg, followed by Cowens with 18 ppg. Dave also yanked down a series-high 15.2 rebounds per game, and dished out a team-best 4.8 assists.
In a key stat, Boston outscored Cleveland 131-84 at the foul line and shot 81.4% at the charity stripe compared to just 66.7% by the Cavs.
Boston then went on to win the title in another six-game battle over Cinderella Phoenix, who had upset defending champion Golden State 4-3 in the western finals, to claim banner number 13.
Three years after their 1976 eastern finals battle, Celtic patriarch Auerbach was impressed enough by Fitch to offer him the Boston job after his friend Bob Knight turned down the chance to coach the Celtics - and a rookie named Larry Bird.
1985 East 1st Round: Boston 3, Cleveland 1
The defending champion Celtics rode into the 1985 first round as the number one seed as holder of the league’s best record at a lofty 63-19.
But trouble brewed beneath the surface as clutch forward Cedric Maxwell was reduced to spot minutes due to a knee injury, leading to a short bench. Right elbow and finger injuries on the precious right shooting hand of Larry Bird also hampered the reigning league MVP.
Meanwhile, the Cavs sneaked into the post-season at a mere 36-46 (27 games behind Boston), but they put together a six-game win streak near the end of the season to qualify for the playoffs.
Playing well, loose and with little to lose, Cleveland ended up fighting the champs tooth and nail throughout a very close best- of-five series that saw both teams end up scoring the same amount of total points (449-449).
In the opener, repeat league MVP Bird fired in 40 points while Kevin McHale added 26 points and 12 boards. But only a 39-28 second period lifted Boston to a hard-fought 126-123 win over the Cavs, coached by a young George Karl in the very first year of his nearly three-decade long NBA coaching career.
Game two was tight throughout, and the Celtics were barely able to pull off a 108-106 win at home. Despite a sore right elbow, Bird scored 30 points and snared 11 boards to offset 25 by Cav bomber World B. Free.
Eight years earlier, a young Free had previously burned the Celtics for 27 points in game seven of the 1977 east semis as a key 76er reserve.
In Richfield for game three, Bird sat out with the painful elbow and a touch of flu. Sharpshooting former Cavalier and Kannsas City All-Star Scott Wedman started in Bird’s spot and scorched the nets for 30 points on 13 for 20 shooting accuracy.
However, the rest of the Celtics shot just 24-for-67. Free bombed in 32 points to lead the Cavaliers to a 105-98 upset, prompting the deliriously happy crowd to foolishly chant “we want Bird, we want Bird” after the victory.
It was only the second Cavalier playoff win since game four vs. Boston nine years earlier (and first since 1977 vs. Washington), so perhaps their fans can be excused to some extent for that ill-advised chant.
But they chose the wrong guy to pick on. In his prime and always one to relish a challenge, Bird vowed that “they want me, and they will get both barrels” in game four.
And they did. Bird tossed in 34 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in game four before 20,900 at a raucous Coliseum. Dennis Johnson added 24 points to offset 30 by Free and 23 more by journeyman forward Phil Hubbard, who always played Bird tough.
The sinewy 6-9 Hubbard had been a superstar freshman out of Canton, Ohio for the Michigan 1976 NCAA that finished as runner-up to undefeated Indiana. But a severe knee injury relegated him to mere mortal status after he won Olympic gold that summer.
However, he possessed the heart of a champion and never failed to give Bird his best shot, playing him very physically before inevitably coming up short time and again.
Seven years later, another similar hard-nosed Cavalier forward in Mike Sanders would also defend an aging, battered Bird tooth and nail in his final game at Cleveland.
Despite Hubbard’s tough play, Bird was too much and the Celtics escaped with a 117-115 victory to avoid a decisive fifth game and move on to round two. Larry Legend averaged 34.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists a game and shot 56.5% from the field in the series.
But the close first round bout, expected to be a laugher against a sub-.500 club, illustrated that injury-plagued and a somewhat complacent Boston club was far from clicking on all cylinders.
With almost no contribution from Maxwell, the Celts struggled to beat Detroit 4-2 in a round two shootout before picking up steam and eliminating rival Philadelphia 4-1 in the East finals.
Yet after crushing the Lakers 148-114 in game one of their Finals rematch (aka the Memorial Day Masacre), the short-handed Celtics fell in six games to LA, and failed to win back-to-back titles.
1992 Eastern Conference Semis: Cleveland 4, Boston 3
This see-saw series sadly featured the final NBA game of the legendary Bird, one that I saw in person from the top row of an ear-splittingly loud Richfield Coliseum.
Due to age and infirmity the third Celtic dynasty was on its last legs and for the first time, the Cavs held the important homecourt advantage over Boston due to more regular season wins (57-51). This even though the C’s tied for the Atlantic Division title, while Cleveland was second to Chicago in the Central.
Nursing a bad back at age 35.5, Bird missed Boston’s first round 3-0 sweep over Indiana while the Cavs, led by Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance, dispatched the Nets 3-1.
In the east semifinal series opener at Richfield, Cleveland’s big three combined for 66 points as they blew out Boston 101-76. Sharpshooting swingman Kevin Gamble, Larry’s replacement, led the Celtics with 22 points.
Yet in game two Boston rallied with a 29-22 fourth period to pull out a 104-98 victory at Cleveland. Robert Parish led the Celtics with 27 points while Reggie Lewis scored 26 and sixth man McHale added 18. Boston shot a sizzling 59 percent from the field (46-of-78) to even the series.
With Bird sitting out his sixth playoff game in a row, Lewis erupted for 36 points to lead another fourth period rally for a 110-107 win in game three at the ancient Boston Garden. McHale tallied 22 off the pines to negate 27 markers and 10 assists from the sweet-shooting Price.
With Bird back for game four, Boston had a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead in a Mother’s Day showdown. But the Celtics fumbled the opportunity and ultimately, lost control of the series in a costly 114-112 overtime defeat.
Lewis fired in a career playoff high 42 points and McHale added 23. Nance scored 32 points and Price tossed in 26 as a rusty Bird made his post-season debut with just four points and three assists in 17 painful minutes.
On the final possession of OT, Bird passed to Lewis on the right wing and set a brush screen fro Reggie. But despite his hot hand (16-of-28 shooting), Reggie deferred to Bird and passed it back. A slightly surprised Larry then missed an awkward double-pump layup off glass as time expired to tie the series, 2-2.
It was a tribute to how great Bird was in the clutch that a young Lewis, on a career-best night, still passed up the big shot in favor of an injured 35-year old playing for the first time in weeks.
Price jabbed the Celtics, adding insult to injury after the crushing defeat. He said that Boston would have won had the very rusty Bird not played. The huge road victory convinced the up-and-coming Cavs that they could indeed beat Boston, even if they were aging and banged up.
Buoyed with increased confidence after the big OT road win, Cleveland came home and took out Boston 114-98 in game five to grab a 3-2 lead. Daugherty tallied 28 points and Craig Ehlo added 20 for the Cavs.
Lewis again led Boston with 27 markers, but Parish netted just four. Bird shot 6-10 off the bench and tallied 13 points in 20 minutes.
Back in Boston for what turned out to be the final home game in the storied career of Larry Legend, the proud Celtics bombed the Cavaliers 122-91.
Bird put on a passing clinic for the ages with 14 assists and at least as many other great feeds that sparked 59 percent Celtic shooting. One no-look, wraparound pick and roll leading dish to McHale was a feed of epic skill.
The Garden crowd, sensing it could be Larry’s last stand, roared on every play as the Celtics blew out the young Cavs. We are not dead yet, they seemed to be saying. Celtic announcer Heinsohn exclaimed the game was a passing 101 clinic as taught by Professor Bird. “And it ain’t fiction, baby,” he added.
Numerous makeshift roadside signs leading up to the Richfield Coliseum before game seven exclaimed things like “Larry’s last game” and other less savory sayings as the crowd geared up for one of the biggest games in franchise history.
A huge, fired-up crowd exhorted the home team to a hot start as they built a 35-21 lead after one period. They wanted to build a big lead and knew that in a close game, the poised and veteran Celtics would likely find a way to win.
Cleveland built the lead to 65-47 at halftime and braced for the customary Celtic comeback in the clutch. But this time, it never came. The old legs and injuries would not allow it to happen one final time.
This time it was Cleveland’s turn to shoot 59 percent for the game, and they were in the mid 60’s after three quarters. Daugherty led six Cavs in double figures with 28 points as they never let Boston back in the game and cruised to a shocking 122-104 blowout that wasn’t as close as the final score might indicate.
Crowded by 6-6 Cav defensive ace Mike Sanders, the injured Bird lacked the mobility to get around his hounding defense. Larry scored 12 points with five boards and four assists in his anticlimactic NBA swansong over 33 minutes.
His one last bit of magic came when he went around the world and his back on a fast break finish. But that was all he had left in the old bag of tricks.
The sellout crowd of 20,273 serenaded the Celtics unceremoniously as Bird went to the bench for the final time, and the Cavs clinched a 4-3 series win.
It was a bitter way to go out for Bird, who would retire four months later after helping the original Dream Team win Olympic gold at Barcelona.
Cleveland then lost a tough 4-2 series to eventual champion Chicago in the eastern finals.
2008 Eastern Conference Semis: Boston 4, Cleveland 3
Sixteen years passed before the teams would renew animosity. Long gone were the old Boston big three, replaced by the new trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. And the Cavaliers were led by wunderkind LeBron James, who was drawing (premature) comparisons to Bird as the NBA’s best-ever small forward.
The league’s best team at 66-16, heavily-favored Boston struggled to beat eight seed Atlanta 4-3 in the first round while the Cavs eliminated Washington 4-2 to set up the showdown.
The Celtics won an ugly 76-72 defensive battle in game one at the new Garden. Garnett tallied 28 points while James was held to just 12 as the Cavs shot a putrid 31 percent from the floor.
Game two wasn’t much better offensively as Boston stymied the ice-cold Clevelanders 89-73. James netted 21 points but sank just six of 24 from the field as the losers made only 36 percent of their field tries.
The Cavs scored a mere combined 27 points over the middle periods against the staunch Celtic defense. Pierce led a balanced Boston attack with 19 points.
Back home for game three, the Cavalier offense finally awoke in a 108-84 blowout win. James again struggled to shoot well (5-of-16) but Delonte West tallied 21 points.
Game four reverted to a low-scoring 88-77 verdict for the host Cavs as they tied the series 2-2. James again scored 21 points on seven for 20 shooting, but Boston shot just 39 percent in the defeat.
In perhaps the most memorable moment midway through the fourth game, Pierce wrapped up James on a fast break drive and both players tumbled into the stands under the basket, near where LeBron’s mother Gloria was seated.
After the hard but clean foul, she jumped up and began yelling at Pierce. LeBron seemed to tell his mom to calm down, let Pierce know that he was ok with the wrap-up, then made the two foul shots.
Back home for game five, Boston ground out a 96-89 victory to regain the series lead, 3-2. Pierce scored 29 and Garnett 26 to offset James, who finally broke out with 35 points.
The Cavs held serve at home in game six, a 74-69 defensive (and offensive) struggle. Garnett scored 25 and James netted 32, albeit on just 9-23 shooting.
Thus the scene was set for game seven in Boston, where the Celtics hoped the homecourt string of six straight wins in the series would become seven.
It did, but only after Boston escaped a 45-point barrage by James that obscured his poor offensive play over the first half of the series.
Pierce matched his avowed rival shot for shot as the savvy veteran tallied 41 points on 13-23 shooting, compared to 14-29 accuracy by LeBron. Clutch shooting by the Truth, who converted 11 of 12 at the foul line, pulled Boston through by a 97-92 count.
Boston went on to win its first title in 22 years over the hated rival Lakers in the championship series 4-2, completing a remarkable turnaround from 15-67 the previous season.
James averaged 26.7 ppg in the series, but shot a meager 35.5 percent from the field as he connected on just 55 of 155 fielders. He also pulled down just over six boards per game, hardly Bird-like in either regard.
2010 Eastern Conference Semis: Boston 4, Cleveland 2
With just 50 wins in the 2009-10 season, an aging Boston team was given little chance to advance past the second round. But the Celtics may have been sand-bagging and resting for the playoffs as they ambushed the favored 61-21 Cavaliers and James in his Cleveland swansong - at least in his first Cavalier incarnation.
The Cavs held serve at home in game one 101-93 as James scored 35 points. Rajon Rondo, of all people, topped Boston with 27 markers on rare 7-10 shooting and 12-14 foul line accuracy.
In game two at the Q, Boston earned a road split with a 104-86 win. All five starters and sixth man Rasheed Wallace hit double figures. James scored 24 but the Cavs shot just 40 percent from the field.
Back in Boston for game three, Cleveland wrested the homecourt advantage back with a 124-95 blowout. LBJ poured in 38 points and Antawn Jamison added 20 as six Clevelanders hit double figures.
The Celtics evened the series with a 97-87 victory in game four at home. Boston broke open a close game with a 23-15 fourth period to win by 10.
James was held to 22 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Rondo recorded a monster triple-double with 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists as he continued to dominate overmatched Cleveland lead guard Mo Williams.
The series turned once back in Cleveland for game five as the Celtics shocked the hosts, 120-88. Boston outscored the Cavs 100-65 over the final three stanzas to win going away over a demoralized James and company.
Allen led six players in double digits with 25 points. James was held to 15 points on sorry three of 14 shooting as he became thoroughly discouraged and appeared to all but quit on the court. Aged and immobile Shaquille O’Neal led Cleveland with 21 points.
Boston closed out the series 94-85 back home in game six. LBJ posted a superficially impressive 27-19-10 triple-double, but he made just eight of 21 shots from the floor.
Cleveland canned only 38 percent of its floor attempts against the swarming Celtic defense. Rondo capped perhaps his best playoff series with 21 points and a dozen assists. Garnett tallied 22 points.
A spent James tellingly took his Cavalier jersey off and tossed it aside as he headed to the locker room in dejection after the elimination defeat. After years of speculation over whether he would spurn his hometown Cavs for free agency, his actions and emotionless face told the story.
All summer long before his much-anticipated and reviled “decision”, he never answered a single phone call from the Cav front office.
Rondo led Boston with 20.7 points, 11.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game in the six-game minor upset. James scored 26.8 ppg, but shot just 44.7 percent from the floor (Cleveland sank 44.9 as a team) on 51-114 shooting.
No other Cav scored as many as 14 ppg in the series, while better-balanced Boston placed four men between 13.5 and 20.7 ppg.
Boston went on to knock off defending eastern champ Orlando in the conference finals, then lost a tense 4-3 rematch to the Lakers in their 12th championship series showdown.
A season-ending knee injury to center Kendick Perkins in game six paved the way for Los Angeles to dominate the boards and foul line. The Lakers rallied late to take an epic 83-79 defensive thriller in game seven at Staples Center.
2015 East 1st Round: Cleveland 4, Boston 0
The Cavaliers swept the Celtics in the 2015 first round as LeBron James averaged 27/9/6.5, and Kyrie Irving added 23.3 ppg.
Undermanned Boston played the Cavaliers tough, losing each of the last three games by eight points.
Power forward Kevin Love injured his shoulder early in game four during a lock-up with Kelly Olynyk, and was unable to play the rest of the playoffs after averaging just under 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first three games. The injury proved very costly to the Cavs.
Cleveland went on the Finals but after Irving also went down with a knee injury in game two, the Warriors took down the Cavs, 4-2.
2017 East Finals: Cleveland 4, Boston 1
For the second time in their playoff history - and first since 1976 - the Celtics and Cavs met in the eastern finals.
Due to a slightly better record, Boston earned the homecourt advantage over the defending champion Cavs. But Cleveland ran off to an 11-point lead early in game one and won easily, 117-104.
James poured in 38 points while Love contributed 32 points and a dozen boards, avenging his injury suffered at Boston two years before. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder each scored 21 to pace Boston.
Game two was even more lopsided as the Cavs raced to a 72-31 halftime lead and posted a 44-point whipping of Boston, 130-86. The Cavalier Big Three combined for 74 points.
Celtic leading scorer Isaiah Thomas, hampered by a hip injury, scored just two points and missed all six of his field goal tries. He never played again for the Celtics, and was traded to the Cavs for Irving after the season.
Humbled by the worst playoff loss in franchise history, Boston came back strong in Cleveland in game three and won, 111-108. The Celtics outscored the Cavs 29-21 in the fourth period to complete the upset comeback, throttling James in the process.
In for the sidelined Thomas, Marcus Smart scored a career playoff-high 27 points to lead Boston. Bradley tallied 20, Al Horford scored 16 and Crowder contributed 14 points with 11 boards.
Olynyk fired in 15 points off the bench and Jonas Jerebko hit some big shots late en route to 10 markers as six Celtics hit double digits to shock the Cavs.
James netted just 11 points, and was held scoreless in the decisive fourth stanza. Irving scored 29 and Love tallied 28 to go with 10 caroms.
Resurgent Boston looked like it might even the series and post the fourth win by the road team in as many games of the series two nights later at Quicken Loans Arena.
Featuring improved ball and player movement with Thomas sidelined for the playoffs, Boston led by as many as 16 in the seocnd quarter as James picked up his fourth foul late in the first half. The Celts led 57-47 at halftime and well into the second half.
But then the Cavs and Irving caught fire with a 40-point third stanza. The Celtics ran out of gas and were outscored 65-42 after intermission to fall 112-99 in a deceptively one-sided final score.
Bradley scored 19, Crowder 18, Horford 16 and Olynyk 15. But it was Irving who buried Boston by firing in a career playoff-high 42 points on 15-22 shooting, with most of his damage coming in a third quarter barrage.
Despite a left ankle injury, Irving scored 21 points in the third period alone on 9-10 shooting, including seven incredible driving baskets in traffic.
James added 34 points (15 in the fourth period), while Love scored 17 and pulled down 17 boards.
Back in Boston for game 5, the Celtics fell behind 43-27 after the first period and never were able to get back in it. Cleveland outscored Boston 34-17 in the third period to put it out of reach and went on to win easily and close out the series, 135-102.
James tallied 35 points while Irving added 24. Love contributed 15 points and 11 rebounds. Bradley led Boston with 23 points in what turned out to be his final game in a Celtic uniform.
2018 Eastern Conference Finals: #2 Boston (55-27) vs. #4 Cleveland (50-32)
A lot has changed with the Boston roster from last year when the Cavaliers eliminated the offensively-challenged Celtics. Only four players on the current roster (Horford, Rozier, Smart and Brown) played in the playoffs vs. the Cavs last season.
Cleveland likewise possesses a much different roster, but unlike the Celtics their changes do not appear to be for the better. Chemistry was an issue all year as the team fought complacency, the loss of Irving, a mid-season roster overhaul and the specter of James possibly leaving again after the season as a free agent.
Nevertheless the 2018 Eastern finals promise to be hard-fought. Without injured stars Irving and Hayward, the series lacks as much star power and intrigue it would have had with the storylines of Kyrie facing his old team - plus Hayward vs. James as arguably the two most versatile small forwards in the league would have squared off.
Boston will have to play at its best to beat a vulnerable but experienced Cavalier team that without Irving isn’t as good as it was during its 2015-17 conference title three-peat run. The losses of Irving and Hayward have been well-documented, but an under the radar loss of pleasant surprise athletic backup center Daniel Theis also hurts the Celtics.
However, with the minor upset by a short-handed Boston team over the talented 76ers in the east semis, one cannot count out Celtic Pride or the great coaching of Brad Stevens.
And one major thing Boston possesses that they did not last year vs. the Cavs is a blossoming star in rookie small forward Jayson Tatum.
Third-year reserve guard Terry Rozier has also stepped up and played well during the playoffs in Irving’s stead, averaging 18 ppg. Plus, the Cavs don’t have the shotmaking of the departed Irving, which buried Boston last year.
Aussie import Aron Baynes has also given Boston a strong defesive presence and some scoring inside to complement the solid, underrated all-around game of Al Horford.
Marcus Morris also gives Boston quality depth and scoring punch (13.6 ppg) at forward they lacked last year. Second-year swingman Jaylen Brown (14.5 ppg) has stepped up his game nicely as well from his rookie season.
The Celtics also possess homecourt advantage, and need to win the first two at home to put the pressure on Cleveland. To me it just feels like the Cavaliers have used up their nine lives this season to get this far.
They looked very shaky vs. Indiana, and seem to just have Toronto’s number, having beaten the Raptors 10 in a row in the post-season.
It would be unwise to underestimate Boston again; this time the Celtics will avenge the past two series losses to the Cavs and get by them in six or seven, ending James’s run of Finals appearances at seven.
To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.