MIAMI — LeBron James appreciates the irony.
Matching up against the Boston Celtics, on the road, with the season on the line. He faced it in 2008 and lost. He faced it in 2010 and lost, removing his Cleveland Cavaliers jersey for the final time as he left the floor that night.
And now in a championship-or-bust season for the Miami Heat, James heads back to Boston for another win-or-else game.
“It is fitting,” James said.
The Celtics lead the Heat 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals, and on Thursday night will look to clinch a third trip in five years to the NBA finals. If they succeed in Game 6 — or Game 7, if it comes to that — all three of those most recent Boston trips to the title round would come at James’ expense.
His first five games at Boston resulted in three wins. His 19 games there since have also resulted in three wins.
No team, maybe no other building, has befuddled James as much as the Celtics and the arena they call home. He’s had a 45-point effort there in a loss, a 42-point effort there in a loss, a 27-point, 19-rebound, 10-assist effort there in a loss. Another loss on Thursday, and his ninth season will end as the previous eight did — without a championship.
“I know how much pain this team has given me over the years,” James said. “So I guess it’s only right that we would be going up there in an elimination game. In order for us to keep our season going, we’ve got to win in their building. So that’s what it’s about.”
It’s no secret that the expectation — both internally and externally — for the Heat is to win championships. That’s what James famously vowed to get when he came to Miami in July 2010, and after losing in last season’s finals to Dallas, it’s been the only goal for the Heat in what the team has steadfastly referred to as a no-excuse season.
James won his third MVP award this season. He’s averaging 29.9 points in the playoffs, six points better than his pace from a year ago and one-tenth of a point away from Kobe Bryant for the league’s postseason lead in that department. And if Miami loses on Thursday night, the Heat season — and James’ — will go down in most circles as a failure.
“We have to do this together,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “He’s going to do what he’s supposed to do, and we’re going to do what we’re supposed to do. We’re going to do it together. We live and die together. You can’t just single him out. People have to stop doing that. It’s a team sport. If he performs, he’s going to perform, and he’s going to do his job.”