It will come Sunday afternoon in Miami, when James will re-engage the , his tormentor of many spring nights. If the playoffs were a comic book, this would be the moment when a scowling James stares down a horrified Paul Pierce and growls, poignantly, “You made me.”
The second-round Celtics-Heat rendezvous will be the most anticipated series of the 2011 postseason, featuring seven current All-Stars, at least six likely Hall of Famers and the ultimate grudge match.
James had all sorts of reasons to leave Cleveland for South Beach last summer: location, weather, the chance to partner with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the chance to play for . But the creation of Miami’s superteam might not have happened without the Celtics’ demolition of James’s former team.
Twice in the past three years, the Celtics bounced the from the playoffs and ruined James’s title hopes. In 2008, Boston prevailed in , despite a 45-point show by James. Last May, the Celtics needed only six games to snuff out the Cavaliers, in a series that will forever be remembered for James’s mysteriously lackluster play.
Suspicious minds believe that James had mentally checked out — his body in Cleveland, his mind elsewhere. The Cavaliers had failed for years to find James a worthy running mate, and he was drifting toward the exit. That might be true, but the Celtics gave him the final shove toward the door.
They also provided the model for what James was seeking. He found it in Miami, joining Bosh and Wade to create the Superfriends — a copycat version of Boston’s Big Three: Pierce, Ray Allen and .
Had James beaten the Celtics that night in 2008, or last May, perhaps he would have a championship. Perhaps a championship would have kept him in Cleveland.
He lost, he fled and he was for the decision. But the Miami partnership has been brilliant. won 58 games, the third most in the N.B.A., and routed the Celtics in the final week of the season — a victory that helped secure home-court advantage for this series.
None of that will matter if James cannot, at long last, solve the Celtics. He is 26, and playing in his sixth postseason. He has two Most Valuable Player awards but only one finals appearance and zero rings. James has legitimate help now — the flashy teammates he wanted, in the city he chose — and no excuses for failure.
The N.B.A. just completed one of the most riveting first rounds in recent memory. Four of the eight series went six games. Only one ended in a sweep (Celtics over ). The gritty pushed the defending champion to six games. The undermanned , led by a resurgent Brandon Roy, wrestled with Dallas for six games. The Atlanta Hawks, a No. 5 seed, knocked out the fourth-seeded .
On Friday, the completed one of the biggest upsets, ousting the top-seeded to become just the fourth No. 8 to beat a No. 1.
The second round is bursting with intrigue.
In the franchise-relocation bracket are the Grizzlies and the Thunder, who left Vancouver and Seattle over the past 10 years. Both teams are young and rising. Neither had won a first-round series in its current location until now. One of them will make the Western Conference finals.
In the veterans bracket are the Lakers and the , who have lorded over the Western Conference for most of the last decade but are playing each other for the first time since 1988. is in pursuit of his sixth ring, which would tie him with . is aiming for his 12th before he drifts into retirement. is seeking a championship to validate his Hall of Fame-worthy career.
The Eastern Conference provides a different sort of contrast.
In one series are Atlanta and Chicago, which each feature a single star (the Hawks’ Joe Johnson, the ’ Derrick Rose) and a balanced supporting cast. Call it the collaboration bracket. The Bulls, who had the N.B.A.’s best record (62-20), have their best shot to make the finals since Jordan’s retirement in 1998.
Then there is the superteam bracket. Seven members of the Celtics and the Heat played in the 2011 All-Star Game — the most in one series since the 1983 finals featuring the Lakers and , according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Boston is aiming for its second title in four years, and its 18th as a franchise, before its core grows too old.
The Celtics have become James’s tormentors, blocking his road to glory in the same way the once blocked Jordan, and the Spurs once blocked Bryant and . Jordan had to vanquish Detroit before he could start collecting rings. O’Neal and Bryant eventually overcame San Antonio.
James needs no reminders of how and why he is here. The ocean view says it all.