Why was LeBron always meant to return to the NBA Finals?

In Boston, where James had suffered as the student, he has now become the master

The return of the ghost. “It looked like LeBron was yelling at you,” I said.

“When was that?” Paul Pierce said.

We were standing on the court a few minutes after the visiting Cavaliers had beaten Boston 87-79 in Game 7 of the Eastern finals late Sunday night.

“Near the end of the fourth quarter,” I said. “You were sitting over there under the basket, and he looked over at you and screamed.”

“Man,” said Pierce, smiling, “they were all screaming at me.”

Pierce was the ghost who had come back home to haunt LeBron James and the Cavaliers. James himself was very much aware of the backstory. When LeBron was the young star hoping to prove himself, he had been stopped by Pierce’s Celtics in Game 7 of the 2008 conference semifinals and again in Game 6 two years later. Both of those season-ending losses had happened here, on the traditional parquet floor of the TD Garden. The 2010 loss had basically run LeBron out of Cleveland and delivered him to Miami, where he went on to learn the Jedi ways that he put to use here Sunday for 35 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists and 2 blocks.

LeBron James will be moving onto his eighth straight NBA Finals, which is the greatest run of NBA excellence since Boston’s Bill Russell was winning 11 championships in 13 years a half-century ago.

Pierce has retired to become a fulltime TV analyst. He was watching Game 7 near the Cavaliers’ bench, in the front row beside the basket in the company of Celtics’ lead owner Wyc Grousbeck. As the game wore on Pierce found himself wondering why the Celtics weren’t putting more pressure on LeBron. The answer was that Boston wasn’t supposed to be in this game to begin with. Injuries to All-Star scorers Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, combined with the losses of big man Daniel Theis and point guard Shane Larkin off the bench, had left Boston with a seven-man rotation. As much as the Celtics wanted to exhaust LeBron, they had to be just as concerned with draining their own limited resources. And so they were at his mercy.

Now finishing his 15th NBA season, James at age 33 is peaking as a player. “You have a lot to do with LeBron becoming the player he is today,” I said to Pierce. He smiled in reply, because that is how the NBA works. Pierce and his Celtic elders made young LeBron suffer, which forced him to leave Cleveland on his way to learning how to become champion. Now the champ was back in his Cavaliers uniform and inflicting the same lessons upon Boston’s 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum, who in Game 7 had 24 points and 7 rebounds in the 42 biggest minutes he has ever played.

When James shows respect and encouragement for younger stars, he is demonstrating the kindness he never received from Pierce and the Celtics. “I just love everything about the kid – the way he plays the game, his demeanor, where he comes from,” said James of Tatum. “I know his parents. I just know he's just built for stardom. He's built for success, and that's both on and off the floor.”

The never-ending NBA cycle. The Celtics were minutes from becoming the least-likely NBA Finalist in modern times. How were the able to fast-track their development? They could not have asked for a better draw, as it turned out: The opening-round opponent, the young Bucks, had yet to establish a style around their 23-year-old Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, which enabled Boston to survive a Game 7 at home; and then the young 76ers, at the end of their first winning season in 13 years, made the Celtics look and feel like a relatively experienced team.

The trade that Celtics president Danny Ainge made in 2013 – when he sent Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for the rights to four unprotected draft choices – enabled Boston to add high lottery picks in Jaylen Brown and Tatum to a winning environment. This makes the Celtics unique. Other franchises add high draft picks to losing teams, which harms the growth of their young players. All of the Celtics wing players in this series against Cleveland were 24 or younger, and yet they thrived like older players throughout this postseason because they had developed in the oxygen-rich culture as coached by Brad Stevens, who has been able to insist that his players earntheir minutes. Stevens and Ainge have presided over an anti-tanking haven in Boston. They’ve picked high in the draft while immersing tomorrow’s stars in winning habits today.

Inevitably, players like Tatum and Brown were obstructed by the elder LeBron. He had been bullied as a young star by Pierce; now LeBron’s job was to destroy the dreams of Tatum, Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart. This is the NBA’s version of paying it forward. It is constructive, necessary and good in every way. 

“I talked about how the pain is part of the path,” Stevens said of his talk in the locker room after Game 7. Stevens himself was trying to hide the grief he was feeling, because he too is young and continuing to grow alongside his players. “We've been really fortunate to continuously get better the last couple of years and put ourselves in better positions. But when it ends it's painful, and that is part of the path. And so we have to let it motivate us.”

A lot of talk that Boston would advance. In the hours before Game 7, I ran into several reporters and former coaches who believed the Celtics would win the seventh game because of their 10-0 home record during the playoffs, the emotional power of their noisy fans, and the youthful energy of their players. These predictions were failing to account for the fact that it’s much harder to win the game that will earn your first NBA Finals, especially when your opponent has been to the last seven of them.

The biggest fear for the Celtics was that James would seize control from the opening minute and not let go. He had threatened to do just that here in Game 2. The Cavs had seized a double-digit lead early and the Garden had been relatively quiet when LeBron’s jaw was knocked sideways by the errant left shoulder of Jayson Tatum. (In Game 6, by way of another accidental collision with Tatum’s left shoulder, Cleveland All-Star Kevin Love suffered a concussion that sidelined him from Game 7 – which furthers LeBron’s legend.) Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue had remarked after the Game 2 loss that LeBron appeared to be less potent in the second half of Cleveland’s 107-94 loss – even though LeBron had finished with a triple-double of 42 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. And so there was fear in Boston that he would go for 50 or more on Sunday.

He was the first player to take the floor for Game 7, walking across the Celtics’ leprechaun at midcourt as if he owned it, oblivious to the TV cameras backing away that preceded his every step. Just before the opening tip he greeted Jaylen Brown casually, as if he and the Celtics were all friends and he had nothing to fear from them. 

The Celtics and their fans were inspired by the opening period. They were attacking, the ball was moving and their shots were falling. For James, at the other end, nothing was easygoing. He had to work for everything. In the second quarter, as Boston built its lead up to 12 points, he attacked successive mismatches by backing Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier under the basket in order to create shots for his teammates. But the efforts were exhausting. LeBron returned to the far end of the court, hands on his knees, 9:44 still to go in the first half. He was doing all of the heavy lifting and his Cavs were down 30-23. 

It may have looked as if he was not getting any help. But he saw promising signs. “Defensively we were just very, very sharp,” James said. “We were flying around and that continued to just keep us into the game. Even with some of the plays that we made in the first half where we weren't knocking down shots, I always kept my confidence in my teammates, and know that if we had the same opportunity in the second half they were going to knock them down. And they did just that.”

LeBron has become so dominant – so very close to the perfect player – that he no longer needs starring efforts from his teammates. (Not in the East, at least.) His other starters all gave him something. George Hill, the point guard, provided shutdown defense on Rozier, who finished 2 of 14 overall. (Rozier and Smart were a combined 3 of 24 from the field, including 0 of 14 at the 3-point line.) J.R. Smith made a trio of timely 3s. Tristan Thompson delivered 9 rebounds and made all four of his field goals. And by the second quarter Jeff Green was emerging as LeBron’s most reliable teammate of this winner-take-all game with 19 points (7 of 14) and 8 rebounds.

In 2011 the Celtics had traded center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for a package that included Green, in hope that he would help them stop LeBron. Seven years later, Green was helping James win another big game in this building, a happy ending consistent with the back-end of LeBron’s career.

The inevitability of LeBron. “The biggest moment of the game was when we couldn't extend the lead in the second quarter,” Stevens said. “We were in really good shape, really good shape – and then we just couldn't quite extend the lead. I thought that added to the shooting the rest of the game.”

Because the shooting was only going to become more difficult for the young Celtics, as the game continued and the pressure grew.

“We felt like we had some good momentum going there, and then we had some great looks that just literally went in and out,” said Al Horford, who had 17 points while leading the Celtics defensively. “Earlier in the series, at home, we would hit them. That was definitely a turning point.”

At halftime the Celtics’ lead was only 43-39, even though they had been dominating the run of play. The Cavaliers were 12 of 13 from the paint, a horrifying stat for Boston to yield the visitors in a Game 7. James had recognized this weakness in the Celtics’ game plan and he attacked it relentlessly. With 38 seconds remaining in the opening half, when rookie Cedi Osman reported to the scorers’ table to replace him, James raised a hand to insist upon staying in the game. “No?” Coach Tyronn Lue said, and he looked relieved. 

“It's what's been asked of me,” said James of the ongoing demand that he do everything for this particular team, “and I have to be able to just try to figure it out. It was asked of me tonight to play the whole game, and I just tried to figure out how I could get through it. Throughout timeouts, I was able to catch my breath. At halftime, I didn't come out and warm up. That was my time to recalibrate and catch my wind again. It's what's been asked of me from this ballclub. I'm the leader of this team, and I'm going to give what I've got.”

Over the second half there were fewer signs of fatigue in LeBron’s body language. He scored or assisted all but two of Cleveland’s field goals over the final two quarters. As he drew closer to another NBA Finals, he became ever more determined. 

“We have an opportunity to play for a championship,” he said. “That's all that matters.”

Regardless of whether he would be opening the NBA Finals in Oakland or Houston, his Cavaliers were going to be the underdog. He has embraced that role throughout the postseason as if it has been liberating. There are no expectations that this Cleveland team will win the championship, even though James knows better.

“No matter what the storyline is going to be, no matter if we're picked to win or not, let's just go out and play ball,” James said. We're going to have a great game plan. We're going to try to get better throughout the series, and we'll see what happens. For me, I don't know, I'm kind of like the wrong guy to ask because I just like to compete. I have a love for the game. I have a passion for the game, and everything else will take care of itself.”

Such were the lessons he learned from the Celtics in the beginning, and the lessons he is teaching now. None of the Warriors or Rockets can match James in terms of experience and confidence. The final round is going to be more competitive than the odds would have you believe. 

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