LeBron James is a meticulous dresser on and off the court, so his fashion choice on Tuesday was no accident.
He had worn the sleeveless T-shirt before in practice, but the black cutoff with the picture of a gold-and-green leprechaun throwing a punch had deeper meaning this time: The Celtics are next.
James will renew his personal rivalry with the NBA’s most storied franchise tonight as the Cavaliers, who have been waiting for an opponent since May 7, open the Eastern Conference finals in Boston. This will be the sixth time that James has faced the Celtics in the postseason, and his history with them has run from the great to the forgettable.
So while the T-shirt was for his alma mater, Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, it was also a nod to the Celtics, the team James has played in the postseason more than any other.
And it was a not-so-subtle jab. Remember, this is the same guy who came home from California last June wearing an “Ultimate Warrior” T-shirt after the Cavaliers shocked Golden State to end Cleveland’s half-century title drought.
“They’re a worthy opponent,” said a rather gruff James, who didn’t have much to say about the Celtics or anything else after the Cavs concluded their final practice during a lengthy layoff. “We have to game plan every game. We have to game plan for what they bring to the table. And we have to mentally focus on our challenges that we have every game.”
No team in the East gets James’ attention more quickly than the Celtics, who survived an exhausting, seven-game series against Washington to make their first conference final since 2012.
James is aiming for his seventh trip to the Finals — a streak shared only by Bill Russell and other members of those famed Celtics teams in the ‘60s — and he’ll have to go through Boston again to get there. The last time he lost before the Finals was in 2010 to the Celtics, who eliminated James in six games in the conference semifinals.
On the way to the locker room following that Game 6 loss, he yanked off his Cavs jersey for what many thought was the last time. Two months later, James took his talents to South Beach.
Two years later, he returned with Miami to Boston, scored 45 points in Game 6 of the conference finals, forced a Game 7 and led the Heat to the first of two straight titles.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, who was an assistant on Doc Rivers’ staff for the Celtics in 2012, agreed that James’ Game 6 masterpiece was the turning point in his career.
“We thought we had a chance to win that series,” Lue said. “LeBron came in and had 45 points, think he made six 3s and he was just determined that he wasn’t going to let his team lose.”
Not much has changed since and James, who has averaged 29 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 29 career playoff games against Boston, is having the best statistical start in league postseason history.
He’s the first player to score at least 275 points with 70 rebounds and 50 assists in his team’s first eight games, he’s scored 30 or more in six straight and, in a sweep of Toronto, he became the first player to score at least 35 in each win.
“He wants to go down as the greatest ever and he’s focused on that every day,” Cleveland forward Kyle Korver said. “It’s amazing, the level of focus and intensity he puts into his daily habits is something that I don’t people understand how hard it is to do.”
The Cavaliers won three of four against the Celtics during the regular season. And while Cleveland was beaten out by Boston for the conference’s top seed, James and his teammates served notice with a 114-91 dismantling of the Celtics on their parquet floor on April 5.
“It’s two different teams,” James said when asked if there was something to be gained from that victory. “We’re a totally different team. They’re a totally different team at this point. I don’t take nothing away.”
James has reverence for the Celtics’ history, their mystique and raucous fans. If anyone can appreciate Boston’s consistent excellence, it’s the three-time champion who has often glanced into the rafters in Boston to admire the retired jerseys and 17 championship banners overhead.
“I’ve looked up there and seen how cool it was, but I don’t think I actually paused,” he said. “I haven’t paused in my career yet — at all.”