Updated: January 27, 2013, 9:37 PM ET

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Scene Of The Climb: LeBron Back In Boston

Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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BOSTON -- The greatest referendum on LeBron James' career didn't take place during an NBA Finals, during a national television special or at an Olympic Games.

In 2008, James shed tears in the visitor's locker room at TD Garden when his season ended, and it led him to complain about his supporting cast. In 2010, he brayed with what seemed like inappropriate laughter after his season ended on a team stocked with veterans who were jolted by his behavior as he immediately started to talk about his free-agency plans.

In 2012, James came to the "new Garden" with his season and his reputation on the line again. Only this time there was a frightening absence of emotion. No tears, no laughter, no complaints -- just a ruthless display of controlled aggression.

James' journey from man-child to champion has come in Boston. The trophies may not have been awarded here, but trust that for years James' darkest memories were born on the battered parquet floor. And now, so is his greatest triumph.

LeBron James
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaLeBron had a glaring transformation in Boston.

The performance James gave in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last season -- 45 points, 15 rebounds, 19-for-26 shooting and a game-long glare that became the trademark for it all -- is far and away the greatest achievement to this point. Considering all the baggage he carried into it and the stakes -- the Celtics were up 3-2 and looked poised to pull off a devastating upset -- that game has no peer.

As he returns here for the first time when his Miami Heat play the Boston Celtics Sunday (1 ET on ABC), those moments are still fresh in his mind.

"It was like a no-lose, no-way, not-tonight mentality; I wasn't going down without a fight," James said, thinking back to last June. "Now, I mean, did I know the numbers I was going to put up, and if we were going to win? You don't know that. But you can control how hard you play. And I told [coach Erik Spoelstra] before the game, 'You're not going to take me out. I'm ready to play the full 48.' That was my mindset."

As with any Celtics-Heat meeting in this era, what's happened in the near past hangs over each game. Of course, it isn't just about James returning to the scene. It is Ray Allen's first game in Boston since leaving to sign with the Heat during the summer, an event that led to a series of snipes from both sides during the preseason leading up to the opener, when several of Allen's former teammates declined to even acknowledge him.

Meanwhile, the Celtics are going through a miserable several weeks, scrambling for rock bottom. They have lost six straight games to slide to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, three games under .500 at 20-23. Friday night, they blew a 27-point lead in Atlanta, turning what looked like a streakbuster into a disastrous double-overtime defeat.

Coach Doc Rivers has gone from threatening to trade players last week to shaming his veterans for what he believes is living in the past.

"Who do we think we are?" Rivers said. "We're under .500. We get a lead, we start acting like we're the 2008 [championship] team. We're not. We haven't earned that right. So disappointing."

Sunday crowd's reaction to Allen -- most expect boos despite his successful five-year run there -- should be intriguing when he enters the game, probably in the first quarter. But with the Celtics struggling so much, the desire to dole out a form of vengeance may have been dampened somewhat.

In the warmup act Thursday night when the New York Knicks came to town, the Celtic crowd was surprisingly gentle on Carmelo Anthony just two weeks after his run-in with Kevin Garnett. The Allen situation is certainly more personal to New Englanders and the rivalry with the Heat currently hotter, but it was a window into the general mood in Boston about its team.

Allen will certainly be feeling the pinch of expectations. He set records in his old home arena, but this season has been a poor shooter on the road, and he's now very much on the road. He's shooting just 40 percent away and 54 percent at home.

"Regardless of how they [the Boston crowd] respond towards me, I have great memories," Allen said. "I'll always cherish those moments. It won't change how I feel."

The Heat, though, are expecting the normal hostility. They won the last game in TD Garden that truly mattered, but they still haven't won a regular-season game in the city since 2007, a stretch of nine straight losses.

Miami has strung together some good performances recently and Dwyane Wade is on a hot streak, averaging 30.3 points and shooting 61 percent over the past three games. Still unproven on the road this season at 10-9, the Heat are riding a four-game win streak and hoping to carry it over to a four-game road trip that starts Sunday and includes stops against East rivals Brooklyn and Indiana.

"It's always been a hostile environment for me," James said. "Knowing we have Ray on our side now, that's a bit more motivation."


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