BOSTON - This arena has been the site of the biggest legacy game of LeBron James' career. It's also been the site of his greatest frustration, and the one game that caused him to upend his career entirely was a decision that had an irrevocable impact on NBA history.
There's no arena in the league, including his two home courts in Cleveland and Miami, that has been more significant to James' NBA life than the TD Garden. On Sunday, with a Game 7 against the Celtics lined up in the Eastern Conference finals, James will once again take the parquet floor with his season on the line - and with the next turn of his career, the fate of his franchise and perhaps the direction of the entire league all at play.
On Friday, after leading the Cavaliers to a 109-99 Game 6 win with 46 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, James downplayed the significance of what's coming on Sunday.
"Just go out, trust what you've built on all year," James said. "For me, I don't put too much added pressure on myself. I just go out and play my game. It's a Game 7. It's something that you wish you had when you're done playing, but more than that, it's just basketball for me."
Just basketball? We dissent on that. But first, some of the basics.
James has played 20 games in the postseason here, most of any road arena. He has averaged 30.1 points in those games, shot 48.8 percent from the field and 26.5 percent from the 3-point line and logged 8.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists. He had won six straight postseason games in Boston until the Cavs lost Game 1 of this series, but overall, he is just 8-12 playing at the Garden.
One of those losses came in 2010, the final game he played before heading into what was the most anticipated free agency in league history, which had been draped over Cleveland's entire postseason like a wet dishrag. The Cavs - winners of 61 games, owners of the No. 1 seed in the East and favourites to beat Boston - trailed in the conference semifinals, 3-2. James scored 27 points with 19 rebounds and 10 assists, but shot just 8-for-21 and committed nine turnovers.
Worse, the team was disjointed entirely, with a gimpy, 37-year-old Shaquille O'Neal starting at centre and midseason acquisition Antawn Jamison at forward. Cleveland scored just 85 points with its season on the line, making 38.4 percent of its shot attempts. Jamison, expected to be the Cavs' potent second option, was 2-for-10 from the field with five points, and the team's bench was 4-for-13, and 0-for-4 from the 3-point line.
Boston fans taunted both James and the Cavs with chants of "New York Knicks!" - one of the teams geared up to chase James in free agency.
James was deflated after the game, and told reporters, "A friend of mine told me after the game, 'I guess you have to go through a lot of nightmares before you finally accomplish your dream.' And that's what's going on individually for myself right now."
He would go on to chase that dream - with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami.
The other bookend on James' Boston career remains a nightmare in the collective consciousness of Celtic fandom: Game 6, conference finals, June of 2012.
In what was, essentially, the last stand of Boston's "Big Three" (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen), the Celtics stunned the Heat by winning Game 5 of the conference finals in Miami, giving the Celtics a 3-2 series lead and putting Miami, losers of the 2011 NBA Finals, on the brink of a second straight devastating postseason ending. James was just one defeat away from being attached to a loser's brand that would be very difficult to shake.
After that loss, James said, "We wouldn't want to be in this situation, but we never get too high or too low in a series. We had an opportunity to come home and take a lead, but we didn't. So we have to go up to Boston and win a game. We have no other way out."
What followed was the highlight of James' career, a game he dominated from the outset with 14 first-quarter points and 30 in the first half, sucking the life out of the Garden crowd and beating back critics who'd slammed James for consistently shrinking under pressure. By the end of it, the Heat had a 19-point win, and James logged 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting, adding 15 rebounds.
The Heat dispensed of Boston in Game 7 back in Miami two days later, and two weeks later, James finally won a championship, with the Heat knocking off Oklahoma City in five games.
Now, of course, James comes back to TD Garden with two possible paths ahead. He will again be a free agent this summer with. He has, as in 2010, been tasked with carrying a mish-mash roster, forced to play nearly 40 minutes per game (he sat for just 1:54 in Game 6). But he has also, as in 2012, come up with a series-saving performance with his 46 points on Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
Find a way to win in Game 7 and return to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year with the Cavs (eighth overall, including his four years with the Heat), and maybe his free-agent decision is swung back in Cleveland's favour, keeping the Cavs atop a changing Eastern Conference power structure.
James will walk into TD Garden on Sunday afternoon for his 21st playoff game in the building. By the time he walks out hours later, as has happened so many times before in his history here, everything will have changed.