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LeBron James’ career as told through the eyes of the Boston Celtics

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Across his nearly 17-year career, the evolution of LeBron James can be traced through his yearly battles with the Boston Celtics.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics, Game 2 Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron James’ first stint in Cleveland made him an individual phenom. His four years in South Beach filled the championship-size hole his resume was missing. Returning to the Cavaliers showcased his mastery of the sport in its entirety while permanently sealing his spot among the NBA’s greatest ever.

The arc of his Hall-of-Fame career is clear through these three chapters, but there’s another lineage that tells his NBA story just as well. In the interest of SBNation’s Rivalry Week, it’s only right that the Boston Celtics are the ones to tell it.

LeBron’s initial years coincided with a relatively meek time in Boston’s history. The Celtics were coming off a second-round sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Nets in 2003 before suffering consecutive first-round exits to the Indiana Pacers and missing the playoffs entirely in 2006 and 2007.

Their clashes with the Cavaliers offered stakes no higher than individual bragging rights in a match up between two of the games premiere small forwards, LeBron and Paul Pierce.

Pierce’s not-so-subtle disdain for James dates back to the latter’s early days in the NBA. A mixture of the competitive juices against a positional contemporary and jealousy towards a player whose hype had, to that point, exceeded his accomplishments at the NBA level. Both fueled his play every time they matched up.

“Paul is talking noise to the bench, right?” former teammate Kendrick Perkins said in reference to a 2004 preseason game between the Celtics and Cavaliers. “He’s talking big noise to the Cavs bench, and they’re sitting over there, Bron and them, they’re all sitting over there. ... Paul actually spits over there at the bench, right? The ultimate disrespect.”

The two combined for 78 points in December of 2003 and 93 in February of 2006. But while James was taking his Cavaliers to the 2007 Finals, Boston’s energy was invested more in the lottery.

That all changed when the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen the following summer. After a 24-58 season, the Celtics were thrust to the top of the NBA’s contending hierarchy, setting a potential collision course on the stage it deserved.

Boston and Cleveland quickly found each other in the 2008 Eastern Conference semis, with the Celtics emerging in one of the most memorable Game 7’s in NBA history.

Pierce dropped 41 to advance the C’s to the conference finals. LeBron was no slouch in defeat, posting 45 of his own to keep the Cavs close until the final minute.

The overwhelming talent gap was difficult for Cleveland to make up. Boston housed three All-Stars. James was all by his lonesome. It was also evident that despite a Finals run the prior year, the 23-year-old was still learning how to win as a superstar in the NBA.

It was a narrative that followed LeBron against Orlando in 2009 and became relevant in a rematch with the Celtics in 2010, where questions about his mental state amid two of the worst performances of his career still pop up a decade later.

He was an incredible talent who had risen to MVP heights, claiming back-to-back trophies in 2009 and 2010. But the Celtics, led by two of the most notorious trash talkers in NBA history in Pierce and Garnett, fared well given the collective manner they went about attacking a psyche still in its beginning stages of development.

“Man, listen. Let me tell you something,” Garnett said on Bill Simmons’ podcast last December. “The C’s, we didn’t give a f--- about LeBron. We didn’t fear LeBron. And we didn’t think he could beat all five of us. And that’s how it felt.”

“We broke LeBron.”

James knew his talent alone wasn’t enough to take down Boston’s Big Three. He needed reinforcements to combat the reigning Eastern Conference champions on the court who could also back him amid the onslaught of words the Celtics would mercilessly hurl his way.

The one place that could provide both was where he opted to go in free agency in the summer of 2010, joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.

A trio of such magnitude certainly usurped Boston’s aging core, but the latter remained confident. Only one had chemistry forged across two trips to the Finals and an NBA championship. The other was newly formed and unaware of how they functioned alongside one another.

That difference was made apparent in their first three meetings of the 2010-11 season, all Celtics victories. Boston knew what it was. Miami was figuring it out on the fly. Even after switching teams, James was once again receiving a lesson in the limitations of talent and the importance of intangibles.

Miami’s inability to coalesce dissipated over time, with each Boston loss coming by fewer points than the previous one. They eventually hit their stride, blowing out the Celtics in their final meeting of the regular season before meeting in the conference semis.

The Heat’s five-game series victory came via the overwhelming top-tier talent that had finally begun to gel — along with an elbow injury to Rajon Rondo that left him severely limited in Games 4 and 5. But LeBron’s absence of mental fortitude remained and Boston continued to pick at it.

“If we can apply any type of pressure, they’re done,” Doc Rivers confessed to Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck — via Ian Thomsen on The Lowe Post. “I’m telling you, you can see it in their faces. The only bulldog they have is (Dwyane) Wade. He was trying to win everything by himself.”

They took Game 3 by 17 points and required overtime to be vanquished in Game 4. It was only after LeBron scored 10 straight in the closing minutes of Game 5 where the Celtics were put out for good.

Even in defeat, the Celtics exploited the fragility of a man who knew he’d underachieved time and time again, unable to manifest the necessary poise to power past Boston’s verbal assaults. The same issues arose the following year when the Celtics and Heat linked up once again, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Many legends required a period of hardships before breaking through for a title. LeBron, in his ninth NBA season, was supposed to be past that phase. His career was at a tipping point. After taking a 3-2 series lead, the Celtics were the ones nudging it off the edge.

“With the Boston Celtics up 87-86, Paul Pierce, with less than a minute remaining, drained a 3-pointer in James’ eye,” wrote Justin Tinsley of The Undefeated. “The shot helped give Boston a 3-2 series lead, but more significantly, it was emblematic of a too-familiar scenario: Boston writing the final chapter of another LeBron James season. And after the dagger, Pierce, as confident as any player in league history, trotted down the court mouthing the words, ‘I’m cold-blooded! I’m cold-blooded!’”

What followed was perhaps LeBron’s first showing of championship resolve, the result of a hibernating bear poked one too many times. A 45-point, 15-rebound, 5-assist masterpiece staved off elimination and was the turning point in a level of assertiveness under pressure that had been repeatedly and reputably lacking.

“Until then, LeBron was seen as soft,” explained Ryan Hollins, a member of that 2012 Celtics team. “We thought he wouldn’t show up in 4th quarters, we thought he wasn’t the real dude and when things got tight, he wouldn’t be able to go out and make plays.”

James finished Boston off in Game 7 with 31 points and 12 rebounds, fighting back from a deficit as high as 11. The elusive championship was won soon after, the final development in his evolution as a basketball player.

“Pressure remains, the burden of the supernaturally gifted, but in a different form,” professed Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins after the title was won. “All the breathless questions that hounded James since the Cleveland days—Can you close a game? Can you lead a team? Can you win a title?—are gone, sunk at the bottom of Biscayne Bay.”

The growth that followed involved a level of self-assurance that produced a 2012-13 season widely regarded as the best of his career. Nothing phased him, and he proved as much against the Celtics in March with history on the line.

Miami came into Boston riding a 22-game winning streak, tied for the second-longest in NBA history.

Even when the Celtics built a fourth-quarter lead as high as 13, the Heat remained composed, taking notes from their leader. James scored 13 in the final frame, rattling home a jumper with 11.5 seconds left to put his team up for good. Fitting that, in a renaissance season, it was Miami’s first regular season win in Boston since April 2007.

“We grew again tonight,” James said after Miami’s 23rd consecutive victory. “And that’s big for our team.”

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Four Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Following that cathartic 2012 series, LeBron wouldn’t see the Celtics in the playoffs until 2015. By then, both sides had undergone massive changes.

James had returned to the Cavaliers the prior summer, forming a new trio alongside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Boston had by then completed the tear down of the Big Three era, piloted by Brad Stevens with a collective unit spearheaded by Isaiah Thomas.

The first-round matchup was a refreshing change of pace from what LeBron was accustomed to experiencing against Boston.

Whereas Pierce and Garnett stood large as James’ elder with the play to back it up, no such member on this Celtics team existed. Boston had gone from the hunter to the hunted. A lack of talent plagued Boston, but the continuous growth of the league’s premier player allowed him to feast his way to a sweep.

Upon fulfilling his promise in 2016, James underwent another transformation, the one that took an already extensive array of abilities to a higher form of being.

Cleveland had offered LeBron a pursuit of the same goal Miami once had. The reward? Attain the elusive goal of ending the city’s long-suffering title drought. The risk? Leaving the friendly confines of Miami, thereby opening himself back up to criticism that, in defeat, would question his leadership, was glaring.

After all, Wade wasn’t present to share the burden of leadership nor was there a championship culture to set the tone. Both fell largely on one of the few team members who knew anything about either.

“The Cavaliers culture,” wrote Lee Jenkins in the summer following Cleveland’s title, “slipshod compared with the Heat’s, had to be overhauled. Typically, that role is left to an executive or a coach, but James believed he was ready to do the job.”

Breaking through with a historic 3-1 Finals comeback against the Warriors further demolished any questions about what James was capable of. He had nothing to prove and, after 13 years of high-level basketball, nothing left to learn.

The following season saw Boston rise to the top of the conference standings thanks to an MVP-caliber season from Thomas and one of Stevens’ greatest coaching feats in squeezing the most from a collection of role players.

James didn’t simply lead the way in a five-game series victory against these Celtics upon meeting them in the conference finals. He toyed with every tactic they used to try and slow him down, patiently bending it to his preferences.

An early tone was set with 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the first quarter of Game 1, including the blatant disregard of Kelly Olynyk’s ability to keep him from the bucket.

“He backed down defenders to set up 15-foot fade away jumpers,” wrote the Associated Press after Game 1. “Other times, he simply took defenders off the dribble or sliced through double teams on the way to layups.”

“Boston also seemed content to make every switch created by Cleveland screens, leading to some awkward matchups for James in the first half.”

Really, this could’ve referred to the entire series.

By the time Cleveland punched its ticket to a third straight Finals, James had decimated Boston to the tune of 29.6 points per game on 58.0 percent shooting. His 13-of-18 performance (72.2 percent) in the closeout Game 5 stands as the fifth-most efficient outing of his lengthy playoff career.

Amid his 14th NBA season, the 32-year-old may have been trending out of his physical peak. But, as Tom Brady put it several months prior, age ensured, “I have the answers to the test now.”

Those answers were on full display in a matchup that offered little resistance for James and the Cavaliers. They’re also what aided LeBron the following year amid one of his most impressive feats of individual greatness.

Irving was gone. Even after a mid-season trade, his teammates’ struggles persisted. That Cleveland was once again in position to potentially advance to the Finals spoke volumes of LeBron’s ability to drag a team where he wants it to go.

The same could be said of the Celtics and the wizardry of Stevens. The two All-Stars acquired over the summer — Irving and Gordon Hayward — were lost to injury. They found themselves relying more than expected on rookie Jayson Tatum, sophomore Jaylen Brown, and third-year guard Terry Rozier.

Boston’s all-around contributions — five players averaged double-figures during the series — proved a worthy adversary for a singular force like James. It bred a 2-0 series lead and brought the C’s to within one win of the NBA Finals.

LeBron ensured his eventual final game in Cleveland wouldn’t take place in Game 6, pouring in 46 points with 11 rebounds and nine assists. But as good as he’d been all season long, the odds for a Game 7 victory weren’t exactly in his favor.

Kevin Love was ruled out with a concussion after getting knocked to the floor early in Game 6. The Celtics had yet to suffer a home loss in the 2018 playoffs. James’ miles continued to pile up at an alarming rate — he led both the regular and postseason in minutes per game — with a supporting cast whose contributions varied considerably from game-to-game.

It required not a single second to rest, the first time he’d done so in a non-overtime game since Game 4 of the 2006 conference semis against Detroit. James needed all of his 35 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists to earn an ugly 87-79 victory and a spot in his eighth straight Finals.

“He’s had a lot of gaudy games,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. “But I just think Game 7, in Boston, all the circumstances that surround Boston, the history ... to come here in a hostile environment: (it’s) right there.”

James averaged 33.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 8.4 assists over the seven games. Love was his only other teammate in double-figures at just 12.5 points per game on 37.5 percent shooting.

Overcoming all that stood in his way wasn’t about his talent being better than any single player the Celtics could throw out. Such was the oblivious error that sealed his fate in his early battles against Boston’s Big Three.

This victory under these conditions was the culmination of all the Celtics matchups had taught him over the years. Strength in the midst of adversity. Exploit every inch of the opponent’s weaknesses. Be the aggressor.

“Lue and LeBron are constantly probing the Cavs’ opponents over the course of a postseason series,” wrote The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks in the aftermath of Game 7. “The playoffs are all about matchups, and Cleveland is uniquely positioned to create and exploit mismatches because it can restructure its identity around LeBron.”

LeBron James has faced the Boston Celtics seven times across his numerous playoff runs. He went 5-8 as a Cavalier from 2008-10, 8-4 combined in Miami in 2011 and 2012, and 12-4 from 2015-18 back in Cleveland.

That steady improvement came in part from the ever changing surroundings of both his team and opponent. Boston’s constant prodding alerted him to what needed improvement in defeat that manifested into his dominant displays of victory down the line. In every phase of his stellar career, the Celtics have consistently been a proving ground for one the league’s greatest players ever.

“I have to continue to say it,” James said after a win in Boston in December 2015. “At one point when I write my book, they will have a chapter. Paul, Ray, ‘Do (Rondo), Perk, KG — for what they did for my career.”

His early days as a Cavalier consisted of an over-reliance on raw abilities. Along with a fragile psyche not yet hardened by the tribulations that would come, James was vulnerable for a seasoned group like Boston to exploit.

A move to South Beach afforded some semblance of necessary back up, but no external forces could completely shield LeBron from the oral torment only he could overcome. The Heat were glitzier than Boston, but they weren’t as resilient in the face of confrontation, creating a tug-of-war their overwhelming talent narrowly pulled them out from.

The return to Cleveland marked a turning point in his role within his team. No longer could James fall back on teammates or the organization when it came time to lead. He was the one tasked with navigating the internal struggles that manifest when chasing a championship, which in turn afforded the ability to exert his will on every facet of a game.

“The LeBron of nearly a decade ago was at the height of his physical powers and operated to the full extent of that privilege,” wrote SI’s Rob Mahoney in December 2016. “His every move was overwhelming. The LeBron of today draws on that same raw, aged power, honing its dulled edges with acute basketball intelligence.”

Now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, linking up with the Celtics in the playoffs will prove a bit more difficult. Doing so would require forces beyond his ability to ensure LA ends up where it’s supposed to be — no guarantees there. Boston is third in the Eastern Conference but is by no means the prohibitive favorite to advance to The Finals.

How fitting it would be, though, for James’ latest entry in his ever-evolving argument as the GOAT to materialize another chapter in perhaps the greatest rivalry in all of sports.