INDEPENDENCE — LeBron James was sporting a St. Vincent-St. Mary High School T-shirt Tuesday at practice.
Coincidence or not, the character depicted in the Fighting Irish logo on the front of it looked a lot like the Boston Celtics’ leprechaun.
“You know the history of the game,” the Cavaliers small forward said of the Celtics’ league-high 17 NBA titles. “You just respect that. You look up in the stands and see the banners and see the jerseys that are retired and things of that nature, you respect what the history has created to this point.”
History, however, won’t be able to score points, defend or rebound when the second-seeded Cavs and top-seeded Celtics meet in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight at 8:30 at Boston’s TD Garden.
“They’re a worthy opponent,” a serious James said in his first interview since May 7. “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.”
James spoke for only about five minutes, roughly half his normal sessions, and did not smile or joke. The four-time league MVP and three-time NBA champion also didn’t bite when asked if Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk was a dirty player.
Olynyk got tangled with Cleveland’s Kevin Love in the 2015 playoffs, with Love suffering a season-ending shoulder dislocation. Olynyk also drew a one-game suspension for Washington’s Kelly Oubre in Game 3 of the 2017 conference semifinals, as Oubre responded to a hard screen by charging toward the long-haired Boston forward and accidentally made contact with an official.
“I’m not about story lines,” James said without flinching. “We just come to play basketball. You guys are trying to create story lines. I’m not for it. The only storyline is Celtics vs. Cavs and who can win this series.”
Despite opening on the road for the first time in the 2017 playoffs, Cleveland will enter as a huge favorite. The Cavs are 8-0 in the postseason, while the Celtics overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Chicago in six and needed seven games to dispatch the Wizards.
“We’ve gotten here faster than Boston did, but they scratched and clawed their way,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “That just shows the team they had all season. They play hard, they scrap, they compete. They made their way here.
“That’s just who they are, and they wouldn’t take it any other way. ... Now we’re both here and it’s time. They’re pretty excited and I know we’re excited as well.”
The Cavs, who swept Indiana and Toronto, will have gone nine days without a game when they take the floor for the opening tip.
Lue isn’t overly concerned, though Cleveland had its home crowd to fall back on when it opened against the Raptors at Quicken Loans Arena after a seven-day break.
“Our fans have gotten us through that,” he said. “Now it’s going to be a little different, having to adjust and play on the road and having to carry our own weight. Our fans are not going to be behind us throughout the game, so we have to bring our energy, which I think we will. I think we’ll be fine.
“It’s the Eastern Conference finals,” he added. “We better be ready. What more motivation (do you need)? One more step toward our goal. We know we have to play well to beat this team. We know if we win four more games, we’ll be back in the Finals. That’s all the motivation we need, and that’s how it should be.”
Though it’s been awhile since the Cavs played, they are averaging 114.5 points in the playoffs and lead the postseason in 3-pointers per game (14.4) and 3-point percentage (.434, 115-for-265). Conversely, Boston has allowed a league-low 7.8 made 3-pointers per game in the playoffs.
“They’ve gotten better and better each year,” Lue said of the Celtics, who were swept by the Cavs in the first round two years ago. “Now they have a chance to play in the Eastern Conference finals with a chance of making it to the Finals. That’s all you can ask for is growth every single year, and that’s what they’ve gotten.”
Offensively, Boston relies heavily on point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 25.4 points and 6.5 assists in the playoffs.
When the Celtics have been at their best, however, they’ve also gotten great production from center Al Horford (16.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.8 apg), shooting guard Avery Bradley (15.8 ppg), small forward Jae Crowder (13.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and reserves Olynyk (9.7 ppg), who had a playoff career-high 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting in Game 7 vs. Washington, and Marcus Smart (8.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.6 apg).
“It’s going to be very challenging for us defensively, but it should be,” James said. “It’s the postseason. We shouldn’t want it no other way.”
After struggling early against the Bulls, the Celtics averaged 3.5 more points per 100 possessions in the conference semifinals, the biggest increase among the eight teams that advanced.
Boston also has assisted on 70.4 percent of its field goals, the highest mark in the postseason, and has isolated on a league-low 5.2 percent of its possessions.
“They’re pulling out all the stops, and we understand that,” Lue said. “We’ve got to be ready for their best shot, and they have to be ready for ours also.”
On the negative side, the Celtics have grabbed a playoff-low 45.7 percent of all available rebounds, so a guy like Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson could have a huge series on the offensive boards. Boston has outrebounded its opponent just once in 13 playoff games.
In addition to James, who is averaging 34.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the playoffs — he’s also shooting .566 from the field and .484 on 3-pointers — the Cavs have a ton of other weapons.
Kyrie Irving is averaging 23.8 points and 5.8 assists, but his scoring numbers could go up even more if he improves on his .399 shooting from the field and .281 mark on 3-pointers.
Love (13.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg) was fairly quiet against Toronto but is always capable of a big scoring game, while reserves Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert are all shooting at least .400 from behind the arc.
Defensively, Lue said Irving would be on Thomas to start Game 1, with Shumpert slated to guard him a lot as well. Down the stretch of close games, even the 6-foot-8 James could defend the 5-9 Thomas.
“We’re just all about winning,” Lue said. “In order to win, you’ve got to sacrifice.”
Because they finished the regular season second in the East, the Cavs are faced with the task of winning at least once in sports-crazed Boston if they want to reach the NBA Finals for a third straight season.
“They have an unbelievable crowd, just like we do,” said Lue, who worked for the Celtics from 2009-13. “We’re used to that kind of environment because we get the same kind of crowd here (in Cleveland). They feed off their crowd, they feed off their energy. Man, their crowd’s amazing.
“They just have a winning tradition in Boston. It’s with all sports. That town, they love their sports. They’re great fans.”
James, whose teams have won at least one road playoff game in 28 straight series, remains undaunted.
“It’s the playoffs,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re starting at home or on the road, you should be focused. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be part of the playoffs.”
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