BOSTON — Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James returns to TD Garden on Thursday night for Game 3 of his team’s first-round playoff series against the Celtics.
The situation — the Cavs up 2-0 after protecting home court — is much different than it was the last time James played a meaningful game in Boston. That was Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, and it was James’ finest playoff performance.
The Miami Heat were trailing 3-2 in the series after Paul Pierce and the Celtics won a dramatic Game 5 on the road, highlighted by Pierce’ clutch 3-point shot over James late in the fourth quarter. James was one more loss away from the “choke” label staying with him another season and going 0-for-2 in NBA Finals pursuits with superstar teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
It was clear from the opening tip in Game 6 that James was in full attack mode with his legacy on the line. He drove to the basket at will and scored or got fouled nearly every time. He also looked as confident as he’d ever been with his outside shot.
“It was a defining moment, not only for myself, but for the (Heat) franchise and my teammates,” James said. “We were counted out by mostly everyone, and for us to come in with the performance that we had, it allowed us to go on throughout that (playoff run). … To be able to come here in a do-or-die situation and get that victory was pretty huge.”
James finished with 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting and 15 rebounds to force a decisive Game 7, which Miami won en route to its second championship in franchise history.
“Those numbers he had were pretty remarkable,” Cavaliers forward Kevin Love said. “When you look back at some of the Hardwood Classics, that’s one of the games. Pretty remarkable what he did, down 3-2 and throwing up those sorts of numbers. It’s crazy to see that. He put the team on his back and carried them to victory. … It was one of those moments where their backs were against the wall and his best was needed and he gave his best.”
In that Game 6, James displayed the killer instinct everyone was waiting to see from him in high-pressure moments. That killer instinct has remained with LeBron since that game, and it’s played a key role in him winning two titles and two NBA Finals MVP awards after that.
“I definitely remember watching it,” Cavs guard Kyrie Irving said. “It was an incredible performance. What’d he have, 47 and 15 or something crazy? I was probably watching highlights (of that game) the last two years. It was just impressive. That look in his eye, that killer mindset is what we need him to have.”
James showed signs of that in Game 2 when him (15 points) and Irving (nine points) combined for all 24 of the team’s fourth-quarter points in a 99-91 win over Boston. He finished with a game-high 30 points, along with nine rebounds and seven assists.
“I’ve been around (LeBron’s killer instinct) a couple of times, and I’m sure on this journey that we’re taking right now together, we’ll definitely see that,” Love said.
We might see it again Thursday night.
Thumbnail photo via David Richard/USA TODAY Sports Images