For the second straight year, the Cavaliers’ path to the NBA Finals is exactly the same: An opening round matchup with the Indiana Pacers, followed by a semifinal showdown with the Toronto Raptors. The finale in the East is once again a series against the Boston Celtics.
Granted, the faces on both sides have changed this year. If Kyrie Irving wasn’t out for the remainder of the season after having knee surgery, and if Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder (two of the pieces acquired for Irving) were still suiting up in the Wine and Gold, this series would probably have even more intrigue around it.
But it’s certainly still there, especially concerning LeBron James.
James has ended the Celtics’ season in four years out of the last seven. They used to be the hump he couldn’t get over (remember him pulling off his jersey before he even got to the locker room after they booted the Cavs in 2010?), but now, the roles are reversed.
The Celtics haven’t won a title since their version of the Big 3, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, did it back in 2008. James has won three titles since 2011 and has made seven consecutive Finals appearances. The only four players to make more consecutive Finals appearances than James are all former Celtics: Bill Russell (10), Tommy Heinsohn (9), Sam Jones (9), and Frank Ramsey (8).
James said he hasn’t yet had time to think about joining such elite company.
“I haven’t reflected on it,” James said after practice on Friday. “I do know that this is my eighth straight conference finals and I have an opportunity to play for a championship if I’m able to be successful in this conference finals, so I don’t take that for granted. You dream about being able to play in big games in the NBA. Even when I got to the NBA that was one of my only goals— to be as great as I can be, to play in big games in the NBA and be remembered— and I think I’ve done that in my career. Just trying to add onto it while I can.”
Since he returned to the Cavaliers in 2014-15, James has taken on the Celtics twice in the postseason. In 2015, the Cavs swept Boston in the opening round. Last season, they took the conference finals four games to one.
Boston, much like Cleveland, has dealt with their fair share of injuries this season. Most notably, they lost Gordon Hayward in the first game of the season against the Cavs after he suffered a gruesome leg injury, and lost Irving after he underwent knee surgery in early April. But even with the injuries and his eight career playoff wins in TD Garden, James isn’t buying that they are a depleted squad who is just going to roll over.
“I think they’re one of the most well-coached teams in our league. Obviously, you know what I’ve said about Brad Stevens before and his ability to get the most out of his guys,” he said.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘How can they succeed like this without Gordon Hayward?,’” James continued. “He’s not even been on the team really, so we can talk from potential, but he’s been out since the first quarter of game one in Cleveland. I get it from the Kyrie thing, he was obviously a teammate of mine for three years and I know what he’s capable of doing. But they’ve got guys that’s damn good. No matter if they’re young or not, they know how to play basketball.”
And despite all the history that remains between these two teams, and all the history that James continues to chase, he says he doesn’t “relish” the fact that the road to his eighth straight Finals appearance goes through Boston.
“I relish the opportunity to be able to play the game that I love and be able to compete at the highest level and that’s being in the NBA,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate in my 15-year career so far to play in a lot of big games, and that’s what I relish. So, it doesn’t matter the team that I play against, honestly.”