INDEPENDENCE, Ohio - It's LeBron vs. the Leprechaun.
For the first time in his pro career, LeBron James will go one on one in the postseason with basketball's most storied franchise - the Boston Celtics - who haven't won an NBA title since 1986, when he was a 2-year-old toddler.
But Cleveland's 23-year-old star is well aware of the Celtics' championship cache and Boston's Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
"We all know the history of the Boston Celtics," James said before practice yesterday. "They've been unbelievable to the history of the NBA and this year it was good to see them back at the top or close to the top. I haven't played there in the postseason yet, so it's going to be fun.
"You look at them on TV and you see highlights of [Larry] Bird. You see highlights of [Kevin] McHale and all those guys who won championships over and over and over."
The Cavaliers, who finally shut up the Washington Wizards and ended their season in a rugged, six-game series in the first round, will open the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics tomorrow night in Boston. Game 2 will be Thursday night before the best-of-seven series switches to Cleveland.
The Celtics needed seven games to finally put away eighth-seeded Atlanta in an opening-round series few thought would be competitive. Boston's 66-16 record during the regular season and the Celtics' 16 world championship banners seemed to mean little to the scrappy Hawks, who put up a valiant fight before being crushed 99-65 in Game 7.
As usual, the spotlight in the Boston-Cleveland series will be trained on James, who averaged 32.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 9.7 assists in three games this season against the Celtics. The teams split their four meetings - both going 2-0 at home - with James missing the Dec. 2 match-up in Boston with a sprained finger.
Although the Celtics were the league's best team in the regular season, Boston coach Doc Rivers has cast his team as underdogs against the defending conference champions.
"They [the Cavaliers] were in the finals last year," Rivers said after Game 7. "One of the things I told our team all year that every time we played them, that we're trying to catch them, not them trying to catch us. The
record means nothing. That team went to the finals last year, so in our mind, we're trying to catch them."
Entering the playoffs, Cleveland looked nothing like a team capable of returning to the finals. However, the Cavaliers, who went through a radical identity change following a midseason trade, are playing their best ball in months.
The performance has raised James' expectations about what Cleveland can do in his third trip to the postseason.
"I'm very excited about the way we played in the first round," James said. "If you're going to pick a good time to be the best team you've been all year, this is the time to do it - in May and June."