With his team facing elimination and the possibility that this could be the final time we see LeBron James in a Cavalier uniform, James pulled out yet another masterpiece. It wasn’t just the 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists. We’ve become numb to all those numbers, and we’re running out of superlatives to describe his postseason.
If we can point to anything that clearly encapsulated LeBron’s performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, it was the fact that he played all but a minute of the third quarter ... until the game was finally, mercifully, out of reach. The Cavs needed every one of those 46 minutes in their 109-99 victory, just like they’ve needed everything LeBron has given them this postseason.
James punctuated that effort with two 3-pointers down the stretch, each a dagger in the heart of a frantic, but ultimately futile, Celtic comeback attempt. Those two 3’s may have been the easiest points of the night, relatively speaking, because everything in this game was difficult.
“Best player in the game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters in Cleveland. “Special night tonight.”
“Greatness,” added Ty Lue. “Championship pedigree.”
In the end, this is what we all want to see: LeBron James in the Garden for a Game 7 against a Celtics team that hasn’t lost on their home floor since the playoffs began.
It’s been a decade since Bron played a Game 7 in Boston and six years since he last faced elimination on the parquet. That 2008 contest was epic, a showdown between young James and the veteran Celtics, which the Celtics pulled out. That 2012 performance, when he had 45 points for Miami in a 101-88 Heat win, was arguably the best of his career. (For my money, there is no argument: That was James’ best game as a pro, but it’s not worth debating the particulars here.)
That’s what the Celtics are facing. But there’s power in being naive, as they like to say. Boston will take on LeBron with the confidence and resilience of a young team that absolutely believes it’s their series to win. They’ll also have homecourt on their side, and the experience of a Game 7 already under their belt.
The Cavs have LeBron. The best player in the game. To this point, this series had been underwhelming with one team or the other clearly superior on both ends of the floor. Game 6 gave us a taste of the madness we’ll see on Sunday. Can’t wait.
The Celtics played one bad quarter, and it cost them. After playing an airtight opening 12 minutes, the C’s lost the game in the second in a flurry of turnovers and poor shots. Of course, LeBron had a lot to do with it.
James played point center for most of that quarter and led a charge that featured four reserves. LeBron scored or assisted on 23 of Cleveland’s 34 points in that quarter, which changed the game completely around. The Cavs were down five when the quarter started and that group outscored Boston, 26-13, giving them a lead they never relinquished.
LeBron’s greatness aside, The C’s have only themselves to blame for poor free throw shooting (11-for-20) and for surrendering 15 offensive rebounds. Throw in those 13 turnovers — many the result of loose passes and careless ballhandling — and it’s tough to win on the road.
When George Hill is good, the Cavs are good. It remains a mystery why Hill’s aggressiveness has waxed and waned this series. It could be his back, which gave him trouble earlier in the postseason. It could be his lack of familiarity with the team after arriving in a trade deadline deal.
Whatever the case, when Hill has looked to score — in this series and the one against Toronto — the Cavs have been almost impossible to beat. His 20 points on just 12 shots were huge, and he provided just the kind of supporting help James needed. It doesn’t take much.
Jeff Green was also strong in relief of Kevin Love, who bumped heads with Boston’s Jayson Tatum in the first quarter, and didn’t come back to the game. Green is good for for one or two of these kind of performances per series, and it came at exactly the right time.
More than his 14 points, his ability to switch was a boon for a Cavs’ defense that amped up the intensity when it mattered. The whole scenario was vaguely reminiscent of the 2016 Finals when Richard Jefferson spelled Love under similar circumstances and changed the defensive complexion of that series.
That said, the Cavs are going to need all the ancillary scoring they can find in Game 7 and that tends to involve Love. The Cavs can’t expect to get 34 points from Hill and Green again, or anyone else really. Only Love has provided reliable secondary scoring. Here’s hoping he’ll be able to play.
Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown both grew up a little bit more in Game 6. Rozier has struggled off and on throughout this series, but he was fantastic in defeat. His 28 points kept Boston in the game late, while Brown’s 27 gave them life early.
Both were aggressive and fearless. Rozier kept firing up 3’s and Brown attacked the basket every time he had a mismatch. He went back at James after they tangled under the basket, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched Brown play this season.
The C’s are usually fine when two of their young trio play like this. Tatum looked out of sorts after colliding with Love, but had his moments. With the exception of Marcus Smart, who was his usual Smart self, the C’s got very little from their veterans.
Al Horford, in particular, was a non-factor offensively. Horford has played his best games this postseason when the Celtics absolutely need him and they need him more than ever.
Horford wasn’t good in Game 6, but can we stop with the constant barrage of criticism when he struggles? He’s only been the second-best player in the East throughout the postseason and the primary reason the Celtics are even in this position. He’s allowed an off night ... just not on Sunday.
We know LeBron’s coming in Game 7. That much is a given. Who else is coming with him, and which of the young C’s will be ready for the moment? This is what this sport is all about. One game, 48 minutes. Best player in the game in one of the toughest environments in the league.
Get ready, it’s going to be fun.