This realization might not go over well with the well-populated The NBA Was Wicked Better In The ’80s crowd, of which I am a lapsed member. But it’s the truth — ball don’t lie, as Rasheed Wallace once said, and neither does basketball-reference.com — and it probably should have been recognized as such awhile ago.
LeBron James is a bigger Celtics rival and nemesis than Magic Johnson ever was. And it’s not especially close.
The only argument on Magic’s behalf is fundamentally based on nostalgia and sentiment, for the days when the biggest games aired on CBS and Tommy Heinsohn had to pretend to be impartial.
Those were the best of times for many basketball fans. We regard the epic Larry Bird vs. Magic showdowns reverentially. But that phase of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry wasn’t an especially long-running show. The franchises combined for eight of the nine titles from 1980-89, but they collided themselves in the Finals just three times – in 1984, ’85, and ’87. The Celtics won two of their three titles against the Rockets, while the Lakers won two of their five against the Sixers and another versus the Pistons.
In his entire career, Johnson played just 39 games against the Celtics — 20 in the regular season, and 19 in the Finals. James has played 78 games against the Celtics, practically a full season — 46 regular-season matchups (in which he’s averaged 29.6 points per game, his highest against any opponent) and another 32 in the postseason.
James took plenty of grief earlier in his career for his perceived playoff failings against the Celtics, but much of it isn’t fair. In the Celtics’ 2007-08 championship season, they defeated the Cavs in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals, their first postseason showdown with James.
But it was no fault of LeBron’s. If anything, it was a tribute to his greatness. He scored 45 points in a 97-92 loss in Game 7 in which the Cavs’ other starters were Delonte West, Ben Wallace (yep, he played for Cleveland), Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Wally Szczerbiak. Not exactly the Dream Team there.
It did seem the Celtics were in James’s head two years later when they ousted the Cavaliers in six games en route to the Finals. The Celtics pasted the Cavs, 120-88 in Game 5, then closed out the series with a 9-point win at TD Garden, James memorably ripping off his jersey as he left the parquet. A month later, there he was with Jim Gray, telling the world in an especially tone-deaf manner that he was taking his talents to South Beach.
The Celtics drove him to form his own superteam.
Since then, LeBron-led teams have bounced the Celtics from the postseason three times without retaliation. In 2011, the Heat ousted the Celtics, who were starting the husk of Jermaine O’Neal at center, in five games. The next year, the Celtics held a 3-2 lead over the Heat with the Celtics returning to the Garden for Game 6. James delivered a tour de force performance, emphasis on force, scoring 45 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in a 98-79 win that many consider the turning point in his career. He scored 31 in the Heat’s Game 7 win .
Include the Cavaliers’ four-game sweep in 2015 in James’s Cleveland homecoming season, and the record shows that he’s 19-13 in his playoff career against the Celtics, including wins in 10 of the last 14. He’s been at least as successful as Johnson against the Celtics in a far larger sample size of games.
Johnson was 11-8 in the Finals against the Celtics, losing in seven games in 1984, then winning in six games in ’85 and ’87. His successes remain fresh and perhaps nostalgically frustrating in Celtics fans’ minds, such as his “junior, junior, junior” skyhook over the Celtics’ front line to win Game 4 of the ’87 Finals.
But he also wore the goat horns more often than history remembers. In ’84, he failed to get off a potentially tying shot off in Game 2, got the ball stolen by Robert Parish late in Game 4 (as well as clanging a pair of free throws), and turned it over to Dennis Johnson in the final minute of a Game 7 loss. Hard to fathom now, but Lakers fans stuck him with the nickname Tragic Johnson in the aftermath of his blunders.
It still eats at Celtics fans that Johnson won more titles than Bird (5-3). And viscerally it feels like those ’80s showdowns carried greater weight than these modern duels with LeBron. But he was not a greater nemesis to the Celtics than James is now — and Game 3’s odd 11-point output aside, James shows no signs of slowing down.
Of course, if sample size isn’t part of the equation, neither one of them was as much of a nuisance as peak Andrew Toney. But that’s a reminiscence for another day.