BOSTON — LeBron James was warming up for the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night when an old foe wearing shamrock-themed pajama pants strode onto the court to greet him. Paul Pierce, the former Celtics star, embraced James, who got a kick out of Pierce’s outfit.
It was a warm moment that lacked any sort of discernible shelf life. A few seconds later, James appeared on the arena’s giant video screens. Several thousand early-arriving fans booed him.
With LeBronapalooza revving into high gear as James approaches the N.B.A. career scoring record, his trip to Boston was a reminder of some of the less glamorous stuff — the tight games and controversial calls, the fraught rivalries and hostile crowds — that has filled out his career, shaping him and motivating him. And the Celtics have been right there throughout, providing paint for his canvas.
Saturday’s game was another doozy. The Celtics’ 125-121 victory in overtime came after James justifiably felt that he had been fouled on a layup attempt at the end of regulation. A foul call would have sent him to the free throw line with a chance to win it. Instead, the officials missed it. James yelled and protested and fell to his knees. Then he seethed at his locker after another loss by the Lakers (23-27) in a season full of them.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “I’m attacking the paint just as much as any of the other guys in this league that’s getting double-digit free throws a night. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.”
The messy end obscured another enormous effort by James, who finished with 41 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. (He was 5 for 6 from the free throw line.) And it is worth emphasizing: He is regularly posting numbers like those at 38 years old, the third-oldest player in the N.B.A.
Ahead of the Lakers’ trip to New York for games against the Nets on Monday and the Knicks on Tuesday, James has now scored 38,271 career points, putting him 117 points away from eclipsing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record.
It is a number so large that it defies belief, a number so large that it can be difficult to conceptualize. James has scored against defenders who have long since retired, in arenas that no longer exist.
How about this? When James faced the Celtics on Saturday, it had been 19 years 2 months 14 days since his first regular-season game in Boston. That game was on Nov. 14, 2003, back when TD Garden was known as the Fleet Center, when James was an 18-year-old rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers and nine games into his career. It was also when Jayson Tatum — now the face of the Celtics — was 5.
James struggled in that game, a narrow loss, scoring just 10 points to increase his career total at the time to 146. Vin Baker played 36 minutes that day for the Celtics, while Zydrunas Ilgauskas led the Cavaliers with 22 points. For James, it was an inauspicious opening act ahead of two decades of tussling with the Celtics.
By now, each team in the league can cite moments (plural) when James did something to destroy the collective morale of its highly paid employees. A fast-break dunk that sealed a win. A long jumper that clinched a playoff series. A pass, a defensive stop, a blocked shot.
The Celtics may be able to cite more of those moments than most teams. Consider that James has won five straight playoff series against them, dating to 2011. But as a much younger player with the Cavaliers, James was stymied by them. The Celtics of the Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen era had savvy and experience, and they bounced the Cavaliers from the playoffs in 2008 and 2010.
Their series in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals may have changed the arc of the league. After the Cavaliers were eliminated, James removed his jersey before he reached the visiting locker room.
“A friend of mine told me, ‘I guess you’ve got to go through a lot of nightmares before you realize your dream,’” he said at the time. “That’s what’s going on for me individually right now.”
About two months later, James emerged from a luxury vehicle at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn., to announce in a televised special that he was joining the Miami Heat as a free agent.
The new-look Heat proceeded to eliminate the Celtics from the playoffs in 2011 and again in 2012, after a seven-game scrap in the conference finals. That year, the Celtics were actually home for Game 6 with a chance to clinch the series. Before the game, Doc Rivers, who was then the Celtics’ coach, instructed his players to force James to shoot from the outside. They heeded his message.
“The way he was scoring, if you go by a scouting report, was the way we wanted him to score,” Rivers, now the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, said in an interview. “Like, if he had to score, it had to be from the outside. It had to be with the 3-ball. We didn’t feel like he could beat us with that. And he did.”
James extended the series by collecting 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in a lopsided win. He shot 19 of 26 from the field and 2 of 4 from 3-point range.
“That,” Rivers said, “was the moment LeBron became a champion.”
The Heat went on to win Game 7, and then defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the N.B.A. finals as James won the first of his four championships.
As for roughing up the Celtics, it seemed to become one of James’s favorite pastimes. During his second stint with the Cavaliers, he helped oust the Celtics from the postseason all three times he played them.
So perhaps there was some relief in Boston when James decamped for Los Angeles before the start of the 2018-19 season, since it meant the Celtics would see him less often. But it also seemed fitting that he signed with the Lakers, whose rivalry with the Celtics is nearly as old as the league itself.
On Saturday, Celtics fans showed up in “Beat L.A.” shirts and jeered every time James touched the ball, which was really just their way of honoring him. The game itself was basketball as theater, same as ever, all the way to the bitter end.
Sopan Deb contributed reporting.