Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers

How LeBron James helped shape current Celtics roster

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Cavs forward LeBron James defended by Celtics guard Terry Rozier (Getty Images)

It's a bit ironic LeBron James must set out to destroy the Celtics if he wants to reach the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive season - after all, in many ways, he helped create them.

The current group of Boston players, the ones that will attempt to stop the Cavs' run of dominance in the Eastern Conference finals, can largely be traced back to James. And it doesn't take one of those crazy detective walls with pins, strings and coffee stains everywhere to find the connections.

It started in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. The "Big Three" version of the Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, had James and the Heat stuck in a 3-2 hole with Game 6 in Boston. James was hearing the chorus of critics calling him out for a subpar performance in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Mavericks. Many expected him to fail again.

But James came out like a man on a mission in Game 6, putting up a line of 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in the Heat's win. There was still a Game 7 to be played in Miami, but the series was already over. The Heat won Game 7 by a final score of 101-88, effectively ending the "Big Three" era.

After the Celtics' first-round exit the following season, it was clear the East belonged to LeBron. In its current state, Boston couldn't stop him.

Allen signed with the Heat, winning a title with James as part of the 2013 squad. The major move for Boston, though, was shipping out Pierce and Garnett as part of one of the most impactful trades in NBA history.

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Sure Not Now

In the summer of 2013, the Celtics sent Pierce, Garnett, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans and three first-round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018), plus the ability to swap first-rounders in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Brooklyn was in win-now mode, so the Nets made a splash in acquiring a couple of (aging) stars. But would the Celtics have made this move if the previous team managed to get past James? Does general manager Danny Ainge run it back one more year? It's possible. But what we do know is the trade greatly changed the trajectory for both franchises.

The players didn't bring much to the table, but the picks were enormously valuable in giving the Celtics immediate contributors and a foundation for the future. The 2016 pick became Jaylen Brown. The 2017 swap became Jayson Tatum after another trade with the 76ers, who selected Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall selection.

You know, this Jayson Tatum...

And who did the Nets see in the 2014 NBA playoffs with their brand new team? LeBron and the Heat. Brooklyn dropped the series 4-1, lost in the first round of the 2015 playoffs and hasn't been back to the postseason since.

Then there was the Al Horford signing in 2016, which came after - you guessed it - James and the Cavs swept Horford's Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Horford would undoubtedly enjoy a revenge series after continually coming up short against LeBron while in Atlanta.

Oh, and that 2018 pick turned out to be, as Ron Burgundy would say, kind of a big deal. In July of 2017, Kyrie Irving asked to be traded from the Cavs, shocking the NBA universe. He no longer wanted to play alongside James, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, making it clear he'd like to be the focal point of a team's offense. Only a month later, Irving was traded to the Celtics. The Cavs acquired Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and that 2018 first-round pick.

Irving averaged 24.4 points and 5.1 assists in 60 games during the 2017-18 regular season before undergoing a knee procedure that sidelined him before the playoffs began. The new Cavs players struggled to find any rhythm with James, and Cleveland eventually moved Thomas and Crowder in separate trades, netting Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. in return. (OK, maybe we do need to find some string and a few pins after all.)

And if the Irving drama wasn't weird enough, consider this: former Cavs general manager David Griffin recently said Irving had gotten a commitment from Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2014 to join Cleveland before James announced he was coming home. Of course, with LeBron back in the fold, those plans were put on hold - that is, until Irving and Hayward reunited in Boston. It all comes full circle.

Now, starting with Game 1 on Sunday afternoon, James runs into the Celtics yet again. He has scored 979 playoff points against Boston, the most by any player against a single team in postseason history. He might need a few more to stop a Celtics team that grew under him - and often because of him.

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