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Let time tell us where LeBron James ranks among the greats

LeBron James slams home 2 of his 41 points on Friday night at TD Garden.Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports

He looks older now. He really does. We’re not talking Morgan Freeman or Danny Glover in “Lethal Weapon 10,” but LeBron James will be 30 years old next month and he’s got a few lines on his face these days.

LeBron made his first trip back to the Garden as a Cleveland Cavalier Friday night and scored 41 points as the Cavs overcame an 18-point, fourth-quarter deficit and beat the Celtics, 122-121, in a wildy entertaining game that ended with Rajon Rondo dribbling out the clock as time expired.

It was the night the stars came out at the Garden (even Gronk). The Most Famous (active) Athlete in the World is a big deal everywhere he goes and we hadn’t seen him in Cleveland burgundy since that playoff disgrace four years ago when James peeled off his jersey before he got into the locker room tunnel.


We all know what happened next. There was the hideous “Decision,” then four trips to the Finals, and two (not three, not four, not five) championships with the Miami Heat. And now that he has gone home to his basketball birthplace, James will tell you that it can never be as difficult as that first year with the Heat.

“No team will ever go through what we went through that first year in Miami when it was championship or bust,’’ James said as he sat on the perimeter of the fabled parquet.

We live in an age of instant analysis and GOAT (greatest of all time). There is a rush to anoint the latest as the best and there’s been a premature push to position LeBron as the best basketball player of all time.

Folks in Boston see it differently, of course. If you are of a certain age, you remember Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor. If you are at least 40 you can go back to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and, of course, Michael Jordan.


I put the question to a few of our Retired Numbers before the Celtics-Cavs game.

Tommy Heinsohn, Tom Sanders, and Cedric Maxwell were complimentary, but not on board with LeBron as best ever.

“He reminds me of Maurice Stokes,’’ said Sanders. “Very strong. Elgin Baylor is one player who could do what LeBron does. He could pass and rebound like that. LeBron, of course, has that great strength. When you talk about LeBron as a top-five player, I’d say he’s in the top five of all forwards.’’

Heinsohn also referenced Stokes, a power forward for the old Rochester/Cincinnati Royals. Stokes’s career was cut short when he was paralyzed after hitting his head on the hardwood during a game. Stokes played only three seasons in the NBA and died at the age of 36.

Tommy wasn’t having any part of LeBron as best ever.

“Long way to go in his career,’’ said Heinsohn. “But I would say that he’s improving. He is such a strong dribbler for a big man. That makes him tough to stop.’’

Heinsohn’s broadcast partner, Mike Gorman, was a little more liberal with his praise.

“But LeBron is the best I’ve seen and that includes Jordan,’’ said Gorman.

“What about Russell?’’ Tommy asked.

“OK, Russell is the greatest winner,’’ acknowledged Gorman.

Maxwell, who played with Bird — and against both Magic and Jordan — said, “Actually, LeBron’s more like Magic than Jordan. He controls more territory. He can direct the offense. He blocks more shots than Jordan.’’


How would you have guarded him, Max?

“Not me,’’ said Maxwell, rolling his eyes. “Larry was on the league’s all-defensive team, second team. Larry can take him. Me? I’d have to undercut LeBron to stop him.’’

Cleveland’s big comeback Friday improved its record to 4-3. Much like the 2010 Heat under Erik Spoelstra, it’s going to take a while — even with LeBron and Kevin Love (remember the Love Loves Boston tour last spring?) joining Kyrie Irving.

“I see what everybody sees,’’ said Celtic coach Brad Stevens. “The talent is undeniable. The longer they play together, the better they’ll be. They seem to be playing very unselfish as a group. LeBron is one of the more unselfish superstars in the world.’’

A lot of coaches blow smoke, but Stevens is telling the truth. LeBron has two championships on his résumé and he has lived his life in the spotlight without a hint of disgrace or impropriety. Cut him some slack on “The Decision.” Other than coming up short in some big games, what else has he done to deserve your scorn? If nothing else, you should respect James because he is the best superstar passing forward since Bird.

James seemed happy to be back in Boston. Like just about everyone else around here, he’s got a work affiliation with John Henry (James is a client of Fenway Sports Management) and he spent some time at Fenway Thursday talking about social media and his brand.


“My experiences here have been great,’’ James said. “I’m just trying to figure how I can get better from those moments.’’

His greatest night in Boston was the night he torched the Celtics with 45 points and 15 rebounds on the parquet floor when the Heat trailed the Celtics, three games to two, in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.

He sent the series back to Miami, where the Heat won the seventh game and that was the end of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen era.

LeBron wasn’t too bad last night, either.

“He’s a fabulous talent,’’ said Cavaliers coach David Blatt, a guy who grew up in Framingham and remembers listening to Johnny Most on a transistor radio. “He has a high basketball IQ. He’s like Russell. He’s about winning, taking responsibility and being accountable.’’

Like Russell. Like Magic. Like Elgin. Like Michael. Like Wilt — who averaged 50 points a game. Never forget.

GOAT? We’ll look at LeBron again when he’s got some gray hair and a few more lines on his face.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at