INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — LeBron James will open his eighth straight Eastern Conference finals Sunday with banners hanging above him at TD Garden honoring four Boston Celtics legends who are the only players to appear in more consecutive NBA Finals than the Cleveland Cavaliers star.
Four wins against the Celtics will earn James his eighth straight Finals trip, tying him with Boston’s Frank Ramsey for the third longest streak in league history and putting him only behind Celtics greats Tom Heinsohn and Sam Jones (nine straight) and Bill Russell (10).
“I haven’t reflected on it,” James said Friday when asked if he’s looked back on his current Finals run. “But 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, and 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.”
Boston hasn’t always been an easy place for James — he went just 2-9 in his first 11 playoff games there — but ever since Game 6 of the East finals in 2012, when he put up 45 points and 15 rebounds, it’s served as a home away from home. James’ teams have won their past six playoff games in Boston going back to that game, considered one of his all-time great performances. In those six wins — which include Cavaliers victories in the first round in 2015 and the conference finals in ’17 — James averaged 34.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
In 34 playoff games against Boston, James has scored 979 points, the most by any player against one team in postseason history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“Just the history, you look up in the rafters, and you see all the greats that’s either played there or the previous arena they played in,” James said of playing in Boston. “It’s a sports town, you look at the Patriots, you look at the Bruins, you look at the Red Sox. You add them, look at all that history. It’s just a sports town. If you’re not green, they don’t really, they don’t mess with you.”
“I think they are one of the most well-coached teams in our league,” he said. “Obviously, you know what I’ve said about Brad Stevens before and his ability to get the most out of his guys, how great they are out of timeouts, late-clock situations as well, no matter who is on the floor or no matter who has played for them, he can put guys in position to succeed and get the most out of whoever has been in their lineup over the past few years, it’s not just this year.
“I think it has been a little bit overblown this year because of the names that has been out. Obviously, with Kyrie and Gordon and the injuries with those two big guys, but he has gotten the most out of everybody he has ever put in his position since he’s gotten to Boston.”
While Stevens deserves credit in James’ eyes, focusing too much on the absences of Irving and Hayward means Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and the rest of the Celtics don’t get their proper due.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘How can they succeed like this without Gordon Hayward?’ I’ve heard that,” James said. “He’s been out since the first quarter of Game 1, so it’s like do we even know who they would have (become)? He’s not even like been on the team. So we can talk from like potential, but he’s been out since the first quarter of Game 1 in Cleveland. I get it with the Kyrie thing. He was obviously a teammate of mine for three years, and I know what he’s capable of doing, but they got guys that’s damn good no matter if they are young or not, they know how to play basketball and their coach has put them in position to succeed.”
James wouldn’t narrow down who the Celtics’ “head of the snake” is.
“They’ve got a couple,” he said. “They’ve got a couple.”
James hit on several of the Celtics’ key contributors. He’s known Tatum for years; the rookie’s godfather is James’ former teammate, Larry Hughes, and is also a cousin of Tyronn Lue.
“More than his game, he’s a great kid,” James said.
Rozier, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, has been on James’ radar since the Celtics guard was in high school.
“He was a confident kid then when I watched him at Shaker. And he’s a confident player now, so I’m not surprised,” James said. “He’s gotten better and better. It was a steal when they drafted him out of Louisville, and he’s just showcasing his abilities.”
And Horford, whom James and the Cavs have gone 12-1 against in the playoffs (between Boston and Atlanta), received praise from the Cavaliers star, as well.
“He’s their rock, and he never gets rattled throughout the whole game,” James said. “So he’s definitely a helluva safety net that Boston has.”
Those are just a sampling of the current-day Celtics that James and the Cavs will have to contend with to put his name closer to those Celtics legends in the Garden rafters.
“We just try and play the right way,” James said of a Cleveland team that’s lost just once since Game 3 of the Indiana Pacers first-round series. “At the end of the day, you can win seven out of eight and then you can lose three out of four, or four out five and your season’s over. You take one day at a time. We want to continue to get better and better.”