The Celtics-Cavaliers rivalry brought multiple memorable moments that helped shaped the modern era of basketball in the mid-2000s and early 2010s.
The 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals was one for the ages. LeBron James and Paul Pierce’s duel in Game 7 helped shape the rivalry between Boston and Cleveland, and it was a significant stepping stone in the C’s run to the NBA Finals.
The two franchises have gone through their fair share of seasons of ranging from contender to lottery team. But one blockbuster trade helped connect the Celtics and Cavaliers and present the world with five of the most memorable players to play for both teams.
Kyrie Irving (2011-present)
Irving entered the league amid a rebuild Cleveland underwent when James left for the Miami Heat. But the Cavs were back in the title hunt when James returned, and Irving became his No. 2. The duo helped the Cavaliers win the title in 2016, and it appeared Irving would follow in James’ footsteps.
However, Irving requested a trade due to his desire to lead a team of his own rather than remain in James’ shadow. The Celtics worked in a trade that sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the rights to the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round draft pick (which became Collin Sexton) to Cleveland.
Irving suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first campaign with Boston, but the potential of what he could bring to the Celtics was shown. Irving was the lead guy on a Brad Stevens-coached team that included young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics fell short in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but it seemed like Boston had its team for the next decade.
That was until Irving signed with the Nets the following offseason, something that drew the ire of Celtics fans.
Isaiah Thomas (2011-2022)
Sticking with the blockbuster trade, Celtics fans were shocked to see Thomas leave the team, especially after the emotional playoff run he went through in 2017. The 2011 second-round pick was not only an underdog story in Boston but across the NBA. His two All-Star seasons with the Celtics challenged the notion of who could be a star in the NBA. Considering how the Irving saga went, Danny Ainge might have been better off signing Thomas to a long-term deal.
But his career after his hip injury was never the same. Thomas missed the first half of the 2017-18 season with the Cavaliers, who traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers during the season. His campaign ended after he underwent hip surgery.
Kendrick Perkins (2003-2018)
The “Big Three” era had multiple unsung heroes, and Perkins arguably was the best of that bunch. The former NBA center was by no means an offensive threat, but his toughness on defense helped make the 2007-08 team elite. His absence from the 2010 NBA Finals remains one of the biggest “what-ifs” of that era, but Perkins’ championship pedigree was what brought him to the Cavaliers in the middle of the 2014-15 season. He simply was depth off the bench, and that team ultimately fell to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Ricky Davis (1998-2014)
The former NBA wing didn’t have any accolades in his career, and he never made it out of the first round of the playoffs, but Davis simply got buckets. This led to a reputation that he was a stat padder and a selfish player. This was highlighted in a March 16, 2003 game against the Utah Jazz when the Cavaliers were up 120-95. Davis was one rebound away from his first career triple-double, and the forward tossed the ball at his own basket.
The problem is deliberate shots at your own basket don’t count as rebounds, and DeShawn Stevenson shoved Davis, which received support from head coach Jerry Sloan. This also led to the nickname “Wrong Rim Ricky.”
Cleveland traded Davis to the Celtics during the 2003-04 season and he co-existed with Pierce. While the latter was the star of the team, Davis became a fan favorite in Boston for his flashy play and his skills that have granted him his other nickname “Ricky Buckets.”
Honorable mentions: Jae Crowder, Tristan Thompson, Jeff Green, Rajon Rondo
The first three players simply were role players who played at most one season with either the Celtics or Cavaliers. They certainly are memorable for their respective team but players who emerged into big names. Rondo also was one of those unsung heroes of the 2008 title team, but his Cavaliers tenure simply was half a season following a midseason Lakers trade.