Tuesday, May 8, 2012

LeBron James and the Men of Causeway Street

With Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami all leading their respective series 3-1, chances are that we will eventually get another pairing of LeBron James against the Boston Celtics later this spring.  (While there is no guarantee that Miami will knock off the Knicks, Boston will best Atlanta, the 76ers will defeat Chicago, Miami will take out the Indiana/Orlando winner, and Boston will eliminate the Sixers -- in fact, the compound probability of all these events happening is probably under 50 percent -- this is the likeliest of the various possible scenarios.)  Below, JPO takes a look back at the last three meetings of James's teams against the men in green.

2008: The 66-win Celtics had an awfully hard time defeating their Eastern foes this year on their way to an eventual championship, requiring seven games to get past sub-.500 Atlanta and barely eking past James's Cavaliers (featuring the decidedly mediocre Delonte West, Joe Smith, Wally Szcerbiak, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and an aging Ben Wallace).  James, though, shot only 35 percent from the field for the series and could not master the parquet floor at TD Garden: Boston won all four of its home games.  While the first six games were largely defensive struggles (Cleveland averaged 84 points through the first 6), James and Paul Pierce set precedent aside and combined for 86 points in the deciding Game 7.  Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett, who was Defensive Player of the Year that season, contributed 13 and 13.  Thanks to a better free-throw performance (82 percent out of 34 tries, versus 71 percent out of 35 tries for Cleveland) the Celtics won the game by just 5 points.  After the contest, James was oddly unfazed by what was surely a crushing loss, referring to himself as a "fan of the game" and a "winner".  Boston later took down the Pistons (making the last of their six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances) in six games and the L.A. Lakers in six, celebrating the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the middle of June.

2010: After easily defeating a very young, eighth-seeded Chicago team (featuring the same core players -- Rose, Deng, Noah, Gibson -- who would finish with the East's best record in each of the next two seasons) James's Cavaliers met Boston in the conference semifinals again.  Until that point, Boston had looked sluggish all season; I recall that Kevin Garnett, still recovering from knee surgery after the 2009 playoffs, could barely keep up with Orlando's Rashard Lewis (hardly a noted speedster) in one mid-season televised contest.  The Celtics began the season 23-5, but then won only half of their remaining games, finishing 50-32.  They were hardly a good bet to make noise in the playoffs.  But against Cleveland, the Celtics were able to recreate their fire of '08, nabbing Game 2 in Cleveland and then Games 4, 5, and 6 to finish things.  Cleveland's loss to Orlando in the 2009 conference finals was surprising but still valiant; in this 2010 series, though, complaints about James "quitting" first arose.  I watched the pivotal Game 5 with my former co-blogger (who still lurks on this site and lobs idle chatter my way over email) on my sofa while he visited my town for some professional pontification.  We gaped as Boston piled up a 26-point margin in the second half alone (building on a slim 6-point halftime lead) to embarrass the Cavs on their home court.  James shot only 3 of 14 and looked uninterested at times (sparking speculation that he just wanted to end the season with failure so he could more easily leave Cleveland as a free agent); meanwhile, Ray Allen hit six three-pointers as the Celtics rolled.  In Game 6, James delivered 27 points and 19 rebounds, but his teammates did little; ballyhooed trade acquisition Antawn Jamison produced only 5 and 5.  20-10 games from both Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo paced the Celtics as they defeated Cleveland 94-85 in a game that was never quite that close.  Following Game 6, James poignantly referred to his second loss to the Celtics as a "nightmare" that was impeding his dream:

2011: By this time, James had migrated down to Miami, bringing Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, and Ilgauskas with him.  (As I noted in a post at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Miami had more continuity in that campaign than has been usually recognized; they returned their head coach and 7 or 8 roster members from the desultory 2009-10 squad.)  In yet another second-round matchup last spring, James finally felled the proud Celtics, quickly dispatching them in five games before moving on to face Chicago in the conference finals.  Injuries to Shaquille O'Neal (heel, calf) and Rajon Rondo (elbow) truncated this series from what could have been another all-timer.  Boston's February trade of center Kendrick Perkins proved to be a bad gamble, at least in retrospect, as neither of Boston's O'Neals could contribute much in the middle, and Jeff Green proved ineffective against Boston's wing threats.  In the Heat's clinching Game 5, James and Wade simply outraced Green, Allen, and Pierce all over the court, pouring in 33 and 34 points, respectively.  Following the game, James knelt briefly on the court, likely overtaken with emotion after finally defeating his inveterate tormentor.  His vindication, though, did not lead to a championship last spring, and he may need to do everything one more time in late May and early June if his team and Boston advance to the conference finals.

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