INDEPENDENCE — The last time the Cavaliers and Boston Celtics met, on April 20 at TD Garden, Cleveland’s LeBron James had words with Kevin Garnett and Tony Allen, with the always talkative Garnett grabbing his crotch and thumping his chest while yelling in James’ direction.
In a Feb. 25 game, also in Boston, Cleveland’s Shaquille O’Neal suffered a thumb injury that forced him to miss the last 23 games of the regular season, and Celtics reserve center Glen “Big Baby” Davis, a fellow LSU product, appeared to try to grab at the wounded area.
In the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics eliminated the Cavaliers in a memorable Game 7 shootout between James and Paul Pierce, then went on to capture the NBA championship.
Even before that, Pierce once spit in the direction of the Cleveland bench — in a preseason game —because he had apparently had enough of the Cavaliers’ dancing and carrying on.
Other than that, the Cavaliers and Celtics don’t have much history as they prepare to open their conference semifinal series tonight at 8 at Quicken Loans Arena.
“They do a lot of talking,” James said of the Celtics on Thursday. “Most of the time they back it up, too.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’re not much of a talking group, but we’re not going to back down from anybody as far as talking and playing the game. It’s going to be really fun and a really physical series.”
Adding to the drama, James is nursing a strain and bruise to his right elbow, which the Celtics figure to go after at every opportunity.
James, who did not talk to the media Friday following a light practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts, donned a red protective sleeve and shot a number of mid-range jumpers and free throws — right-handed – during the portion of the workout that was open to the media.
The 25-year-old was not seen attempting any 3-pointers, but he’ll be on the floor for the opening tip tonight and is expected to play his normal 40-plus minutes, no matter what tactics the Celtics employ.
“I wouldn’t say they can get you out of your game, but you know what to expect when you’re playing them,” Cleveland power forward Antawn Jamison said. “If you have a younger team, they can rattle some cages, but we know this team just as well as anybody.
“We know who’s going to do all the talking. We know they’re going to play physical. We know the style of basketball they play. There’s no surprises.”
It would be a total shock if Garnett, one of the biggest trash-talkers in the league, didn’t bang his head on the basket support prior to tipoff, thump his chest after making a key play and try to get into the head of James and other Cavaliers at every opportunity.
“That’s a skill that hasn’t diminished,” Cleveland shooting guard Anthony Parker said. “K.G.’s a passionate guy. He plays with emotion.
“I don’t think his skills have diminished. He may not have the same bounce, but he’s tightened up his game. The skills are still there.”
The 33-year-old Garnett, however, is no longer the Celtics’ best player. Neither are Pierce, 33, or Ray Allen, 34. Instead, that moniker belongs to 24-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo.
“K.G.’s not as healthy as he was when they won it a few years ago, but he’s still effective,” James said. “That goes for the rest, too. K.G. may not be as healthy as he was a few years ago, but Rondo’s a better player. Other guys have picked up their game.”
The Cavaliers believe they also are a much better team than the one that almost beat Boston in 2008 —Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic, Joe Smith and Daniel Gibson played prominent minutes in that series — but it should be noted that they, too, have a way of irritating many opponents.
Cleveland players don’t do a ton of talking or commit a lot of flagrant fouls, but they do perform their share of crazy dances and handshakes, especially when they’re winning. The way they see it, it’s all part of having fun and staying loose, but they realize not everyone sees it that way.
“We just go out and do our job,” James said. “We’re not a talkative team. It’s not like we’re talking mess out there.
“I guess a lot of people don’t like our antics, how we have fun with the game. There’s a lot of serious teams that don’t have fun with the game. They see us shaking hands and dancing at times. A lot of teams don’t like that, so they want to talk to you.”
The fourth-seeded Celtics, whose rotation also includes 35-year-old Rasheed Wallace, who had a number of run-ins with Cleveland players while with Detroit, and 37-year-old Michael Finley, don’t have a lot of years left with their core group of players. That’s why they will do everything in their power to upset top-seeded Cleveland and put an end to all the dancing.
“This series is going to be a great series to watch as a fan,” Cavaliers point guard Mo Williams said. “It’s going to have its chippiness to it. It’s going to have its great-game moments to it. There’s going to be big plays.
“(The dislike) is well-documented,” he added. “But besides that, there’s a great level of respect on both sides. It will be a helluva series.”
It will be a series that will involve dancing, gooseneck symbols, chest-thumping, head-banging and more than a little talking.
“They’re going to be who they are,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said of the Celtics. “They like to talk. They like to enjoy it. That’s who they are. You just go about your business and try to get it done as best you can.”
Before one team wins four games and moves on to the conference finals, there may even be an altercation or two, but that comes with the territory at this time of year.
“I don’t know if it’s bad blood,” Parker said. “We’re both trying to get somewhere and we’re both in the way of each other. That’s what playoff basketball is.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.