|James on playing in Boston: 'It's one of the toughest environments to play in.' (US Presswire)|
BOSTON -- LeBron James' voice was measured, not to mention hoarse Saturday as he went through what has become a common, compelling ritual: preparing for another playoff game in Boston.
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James in this setting, against these Celtics, is one of the most intriguing storylines the NBA has. His history here -- some good, mostly bad, and always evolving -- is the backdrop against which the Heat will try to atone for their sins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday.
James' performance in Game 3 -- 34 points, 16 for 26 from the field, guarding Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo or whomever else coach Erik Spoelstra asked him to guard -- had little to do with the Heat failing to take what would've been a commanding 3-0 lead in the series. James has had some vexing playoff performances in Boston, but the ones that saw him rise to the personal challenge and still lose the game are in many ways the ones that provide the best theater.
Game 3 of the conference semifinals here last season was one of the vexing ones, with James scoring only 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting in a loss that turned out to be the last gasp from the Celtics. James bounced back to lead the Heat to victory in Game 4, then finished off his nemeses in Game 5 at Miami.
A year before, he bounced back personally from that hideous, 3-for-14 shooting performance in Game 5 at home with the Cavaliers and had 27 points and 19 rebounds in Game 6 of the conference semis -- but the Celtics won anyway, effectively detonating James' career in Cleveland.
Two years earlier, on the maiden voyage of the Celtics' Big Three, James' 45 points on 14-for-29 shooting weren't enough to stop Paul Pierce and those dastardly Celtics in Game 7 of the conference semis in Boston. James had shot 8 for 42 in the first two games of the series at TD Garden, and though he eventually recovered, the Cavs did not.
So here was James on Saturday in familiar territory, seeming to have grown comfortable and at peace with who he is and what the stakes are here for his legacy and for the superteam that he formed in direct response to the Celtics' ruthless bullying. Everything about James is magnified and dissected, and his response in Game 4 Sunday will be no different. His planned approach is clear, and possibly problematic: If dropping 34 on the Celtics in Boston isn't enough, then he has to look to his sidekick, Dwyane Wade.
If you take James' words literally, he has to become the sidekick if the Heat are to emerge from Boston with the one victory they need to take full control of this series.
"I know that D-Wade wants to get a few easy buckets," James said. "... I had it going early on in Game 3, but now I'm going to need his dominant play as well. So I will make that conscious effort to try and get him going early."
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In the end, though, the accomplishment of winning here or the devastation of losing always finds LeBron -- always rests with him. Since the Celtics formed their Big Three in 2007, James' postseason record in Boston is 2-8; his record in those playoff series is 1-2. More important, he is aware of this -- and finally has arrived at a place in this tumultuous, hyper-analyzed career where he isn't running from it anymore. There's no use.
"It's one of the toughest environments to play in," James said. "These fans, they support this team. Of course we all know the history of this team and the history of the league. ... It's great to be a part of it. I've been on both sides, been able to win and I've lost more in this building than I've won. But it's always exciting."
Always an adventure. Always a fishbowl for LeBron, with sharks in the water.
"Whatever happened in the past -- good, bad, indifferent -- it's in the past," teammate Shane Battier said. "I think LeBron is in a really good spot personally and professionally, and he's focused on what he needs to do to help our team. He seems more settled. He seems more at peace with where he is in his career and who he is."
Battier, one of the most thoughtful and observant players in the league, is the perfect window through which to inspect James' constant evolution. Battier didn't play with him last season, the first, bumpy go-round for the South Beach Superteam. But having traveled to China with Yao Ming, Battier has witnessed firsthand what happens when millions -- or in Yao's case, billions -- examine athletes up close with microscopes in hand.
Now, those with microscopes also have Twitter accounts.
"He sneezes and it's a trending topic on Twitter," Battier said. "I've said this before, he is a fascinating study because he is really the first and the most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over. And he handles everything with an amazing grace and a patience that I don't know if other superstars from other eras would've been able to handle."
Imagine Magic Johnson, who knows how to run everybody's team and career now, under the influence of Twitter in the '80s. Imagine Larry Bird -- the Hick from French Lick -- interacting with fans on social media. Imagine, at your own peril, a world where Charles Barkley had a minute-to-minute outlet for whatever was on his mind after a game that he lost or didn't get any calls.
This is the world James lives in, and it's a world that will not treat him kindly if he falls short against the Celtics again in Game 4. If he scores 40 and Miami loses, the blogosphere will light up with "hero ball" rhetoric. If he defers to Wade, becomes the sidekick and lets Wade win the game, it'll be said that James shied away from the moment.
It's a rock-star world with rock-star consequences, and analysis flowing 24 hours a day. It was Battier who painted that analogy Saturday, and it was so fitting.
Battier said he felt like the fourth Beatle when he traveled to China with Yao, but now he's not even Ringo in the Heat's pecking order. And with Chris Bosh out, there's only John and Paul; Battier wouldn't say which one LeBron was, and in truth, that changes from game to game. The point being, the glare is so bright on the Heat's lead singer and song writer -- LeBron, who is either Lennon or McCartney, depending on the day -- that Battier doesn't even feel worthy of picking up a drum stick.
"I carry the equipment from city to city, but I tell you what," Battier said. "That guy never paid for a Guinness in England, I'll tell you that. Pretty good gig."
Unless you're the leader of the band. And when LeBron plays Boston, it's a rock concert that can't be missed.