Those “Beat LA, Beat LA” chants that reverberated through TD Garden on Monday night just as easily could have been “Beat LBJ, Beat LBJ.” LeBron James and the Celtics have history, as they say. He has played the roles of frustrated foil, worthy villain, and all-time great tormentor against the Green in his sublime career. LeBron deserves your begrudging respect, if not your appreciation.
The Celtics have often borne witness to James’s greatness. Coming into Monday night’s contest against the Celtics, his only scheduled visit to the parquet, James was averaging 29.3 points per game, 7.2 rebounds and 7 assists in 51 regular-season games against the Celtics. His regular-season scoring average against Boston was his highest against any team. This night belonged to the young Celtics, not the old lion, as Boston blitzed LeBron’s Lakers, handing them their largest loss of the season, 139-107. “A good old-fashioned butt-whooping” LeBron called it.
The highlight of James’s Boston visit came earlier in the day when he went to see his son Bronny play in the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield with his Sierra Canyon (Calif.) School teammates.
“Yeah, it was truly a blessing. I didn’t mind going down to Springfield to check the game out,” said LeBron. “The only bad thing about today is that the James Gang took two Ls today. But there’s always better days.”
James joked he walked to Springfield. Reports had him taking a helicopter. Either way, it was a reminder that the King is a human being, a busy Dad trying to juggle work and family who was elated to see his son’s high school basketball game.
Sometimes LeBron’s games with the Celtics feel personal, too. The Celtics are either in LeBron’s way or he is in theirs. That’s the way it has been for most of his iconic career. LeBron is adding his own chapter to the NBA’s most storied rivalry, Celtics vs. Lakers, with a ready out-of-the-box Showtime contender. Despite the outcome, your Celtics are still missing a few pieces.
The most recent incidence of James rebuffing the Celtics was his agent and long-time friend Rich Paul convincing another of his clients, Anthony Davis, that it was better to team up with King James in Los Angeles than go to Boston. The Celtics had been hoarding assets for years to pull off a deal for Davis, their hoops Holy Grail incarnate. It’s always LeBron standing in the way.
He didn’t prove much of an obstacle on Monday night, despite Los Angeles entering with the league’s second-best record and the Celtics as losers of six of eight. The lackadaisical Lakers booted the basketball around the parquet in the first half, turning it over nine times. It was Enes Kanter, not Davis, who was the big man making his presence felt. Kanter had all 18 points and 8 of his 11 rebounds — six on the offensive end — in the first half as Boston took a 69-55 lead into the locker room.
Back in the lineup after missing two games with a sprained thumb, Jaylen Brown (20 points) sent a message to James with 8:29 left in the third quarter. He levitated above LeBron, threw down a two-handed slam, and then stared him down. Just 78 seconds later, Jayson Tatum (27 points on 10 of 18 shooting) drilled one of his five threes from in front of the Lakers’ bench to give the Celtics an 88-66 lead. Boston’s lead would balloon to as many as 34, the Lakers’ largest deficit of the season.
“That’s all part of basketball,” said James. “I think if you were to tally up my successful block attempts compared to my successful dunked-ons I think I’m kind of more like [raised his hand higher]. It’s not the first time I’ve been dunked on. It might not be the last time I get dunked on. Jaylen has been playing exceptionally well this year, and that was a good play.”
It was a rare off night for the King and the Lakers, as he netted only 15 points, roughly half of his usual Celtics damage. He still managed 13 assists. One of the most gifted passers of his era, LeBron has been in Wilt Chamberlain mode this season, leading the league in assists (11 per game) simply because he can. He assisted on the Lakers’ first four baskets, including a 4-point play by Danny Green, as they jumped out to a 10-3 lead. That was the highlight of his night.
James has endured days like this before in this building.
You can trace the arc of his career and his evolution as an NBA legend through his relationship with the Green. He started out hunting Boston and then became the hoops hunted for the progeny of the parquet.
The New Big Three Celtics blocked LeBron’s path to a championship during his first stint in Cleveland and hastened his Decision to take his talent to South Beach to form a hoops Holy Trinity with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. He had a memorable shootout with Paul Pierce at the Garden in the 2008 NBA Playoffs. The last game of James’s first term in Cleveland was on the parquet as the Celtics eliminated him in the 2010 playoffs.
In 2012, on the way to his first NBA title, it was James, who returned the favor, sounding the death knell for the New Big Three as the Heat rallied from a 3-2 series deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals with James delivering a virtuoso performance under pressure in Game 6 at the Garden. That game was the final one that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen played together for Boston on the parquet.
Two of the members of that Celtics team, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, are now part of James’s supporting cast with the Lakers. Bradley has a greater appreciation for LeBron’s glorious career and how his epic battles with the Celtics helped contribute to it.
“Of course. What he has been able to do for the game of basketball I feel like I would be ignorant not to be able to appreciate everything,” said Bradley “For me, in my time of playing basketball he was everybody’s Michael Jordan. Now, to have a chance to play with him it’s pretty cool.”
James and the Green are intertwined in NBA lore. In their first playoff appearance under Brad Stevens, the Celtics got bulldozed by James in his second act in Cleveland via a four-game sweep in the opening round of the 2015 playoffs. James dispatched the Celtics in the 2017 and 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, the latter particularly haunting.
James and the Cavs won a decisive Game 7 at TD Garden as the upstart Celtics, sans the injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, wilted while LeBron delivered 35 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists and 2 blocks in a bravura piece of basketball.
The 35-year-old James is having another MVP season. Barring a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals, he’s only going to come to Boston once a year now.
You don’t have to root for him or revere him. As Chamberlain once famously opined, “Nobody roots for Goliath.”
But you should appreciate the Celtics’ role in his brilliant career and consider yourself fortunate to have witnessed it.