The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers held a barnburner of a Game 7 on Sunday, with Boston’s Jayson Tatum going head-to-head with LeBron James.
For his part, LeBron was everything we expected in a Game 7. The King played spectacularly, willing his Cavaliers squad to yet another NBA Finals appearance as Cleveland edged Boston.
But before things were sealed, and the game decided, Tatum got off a raucous dunk right in James’ eye that made many wonder if the torch was on the cusp of being passed.
The play came with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter with Tatum driving down the lane and LeBron moving over to help recover on defense. It would have been easy to anticipate another big LeBron playoff block, but Tatum continued his surprising season by dunking all over The King.
He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.
Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.
Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.
On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.
You could sort of just see it coming.
James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.
LeBron James in games 6 & 7 against the NBA’s #1 ranked defense:
But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.
In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.
The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.
The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.
Marcus Morris is 6’9, 235 lbs and couldn’t stop LeBron from behind with two full hands on his shoulders. King James – too big, too strong, too good. The series in a gif. pic.twitter.com/Dw6wxJ2ioJ
So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.
Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.
The Lebron-versus-Jordan debate, and any other like it, should only be about comparing resumes. To not believe LeBron James is better at basketball than Michael Jordan is to basically not believe in human evolution.
LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2007 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. To add further insult to injury, LeBron pushed this team past a very good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.
James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise.
"We've been counted out for a long time this season."
Houston Rockets guard Chris Pauldidn’t play in Game 6 on Saturday night. The Rockets failed to eliminate the Golden State Warriors, who forced a Game 7 with a 115-86 win in Oakland.
Paul’s status for Game 7 is still unclear, although things aren’t looking good. Paul’s hamstring injury will be hard to heal in such a short amount of time, even with round the clock treatment and the power of will the veteran point guard brings to the table.
The Point God has a tendency to get hurt at just the wrong time. Paul famously broke his hand in April of 2016, and along with Blake Griffin‘s quad injury, allowed the Portland Trail Blazers to get the better of the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs that year. Paul also missed two games against the Rockets in the playoffs with a sore hamstring in 2015, a series the Clippers and Paul lost in seven games.
The NBA is not blind to Paul’s bad luck, either. Opposing head coach Steve Kerr commented on it to reporters, outlining not only what he thought they might do rotationally but his feelings about Paul’s injury history.
“More than anything, I feel bad for Chris,” Kerr said before the Warriors’ 115-86 rout of the Rockets at Oracle Arena. “The guy’s a phenomenal player and competitor and pretty much willed his team the last two games. He’s just been haunted by these types of injuries in his career, and it’s a shame. I hate when anybody gets hurt.”
Kerr mentioned that he knew the reality of the situation is that by the end of the season, not everyone is going to be healthy. No doubt it’s a good thing for Kerr and the Warriors that Paul will likely miss Game 7. It’s unfortunate for a veteran like Paul, whose stellar career is dogged by unfair narratives of playoff failures.
Maybe Houston can try again next year when they have LeBron James?
Three things to watch in Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers Game 7
One game. Winner moves on to the NBA Finals, loser can book early tee times starting Monday.
It’s a dramatic Game 7 between Boston and Cleveland for the Eastern Conference crown. In a series that has swung wildly in favor of whoever was the home team that night, the season comes down to one game for these two team. At this point, there are no more real adjustments — both teams, both coaches know what to expect from the other side. It’s about poise. It’s about keeping your head. It’s about what role player will step up big (as one always seems to do in quirky Game 7s).
Here are three things to keep an eye on in this game.
1) LeBron James. He’s the best player on the court, the best of his generation, and with the Cavs it all starts with him — he can’t be just merely good for the Cavaliers to win, he has to be superhuman. Which is what we’ve come to expect — he had 46 points in 46 minutes of play in Game 6 and that’s going to be needed again.
It’s worth watching early on to see if the tweak to his knee suffered in Game 6 has any impact — he scored 12 points after it in that game, but it’s possible it tightened up after his body cooled down. Does LeBron have the same lift and explosiveness? Either way, he’s going to make plays. From the Celtics’ perspective, they just need to make him work hard for them.
There are a lot of players who get tight and shrink from Game 7s. Not LeBron — for his career he has averaged 34.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 5.1 assists in Game 7s. The last five times he’s been in a Game 7, LeBron’s teams have won (his last Game 7 loss was to the Celtics in 2008). Bottom line, if there’s one thing we know will happen in this game, it’s LeBron will be great. That, alone, is not enough to get the Cavaliers a win, which leads us too….
2) With Kevin Love out, will any other role players step up for the Cavaliers? Love has been the second best offensive player for the Cavaliers in the postseason, but they can survive his loss — this is a better defensive team without him (3.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court in this series) and the offense often sees better ball movement and flow.
Cleveland’s veterans need to step up in this pressure situation, and that starts with George Hill — he is the bellwether for this team, the second ball handler and shot creator they need. When he plays well, when he is playing downhill and attacking off picks as he did in Game 6, they win. Hill was aggressive, got into the paint, and from there is both a scorer and a distributor in the last game in Cleveland. He has not been the same guy on the road, what does he have to do to be that guy again?
“I have to focus and try to do the same things that I prepared today to take into Sunday,” Hill said after Game 6. “It sounds funny, but I had to go find my Chipotle barbacoa. That’s my pregame meal, so I’m up two games — well, the three games here, that’s what I ate before the game. I’m for sure going to find a Chipotle in Boston, I’ll tell you that.”
Beyond Hill and his barbacoa, Jeff Green is getting the start with Hill out — he is a streaky player, but the good Green would go a long way to helping the Cavs in this one. Kyle Korver needs to find space and knock down threes, the good J.R. Smith needs to show up (that version of him missed a lot of time this series, he’s been dreadful for several games), and Tristan Thompson needs to get some offensive rebounds. LeBron is going to do his thing, but the man can only do so much, he needs help.
3) Are the Celtics’ young stars ready for this pressure and this moment? Boston is at home, where they are a different team and an undefeated 10-0 this season. Boston is also the younger team that bounces back faster, something that matters because this is the third game in five days for these teams (great scheduling, NBA… ugh). The Celtics deserve to be the favorite, but the question that has hung over them all playoffs still looms for this game:
Is Boston ready for this stage and this level of pressure?
“I’ve tried my best all year to try and not talk about their age,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Game 6. “It’s not about that. They’re really good basketball players. They’re really committed to each other. We all have a job to do and that’s go out and try to play the best we can. That’s regardless, Game 7, Game 1, a game in November, whatever the case may be… We need to be ready to play. We will be ready to play.”
The Celtics have already played a Game 7 in this postseason, handily beating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. That, however, is a much smaller stage. They need to do Sunday what they did in that first Game 7 — the win starts on the defensive end, making LeBron work for his buckets and not letting the supporting cast get rolling. Then, with the stops and turnovers, use those young legs to get out in transition and get a few easy buckets, force cross-matches and take advantage.
Boston gets their points by committee, they get the ball to the open man and he has to knock the shot down, whether it’s Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier or Al Horford or anyone else. In Game 6, they were not hitting those shots, and defensively they let Hill and other supporting Cavaliers get rolling. That has to change in Game 7 — make LeBron work for his buckets and don’t let the role players get hot.
Boston needs another aggressive first quarter from Brown (he’s done that most of the series). They need to force switches and run sets that get Horford space from Thompson. The Celtics need to defend, then run — they need to force the pace and try to wear down the older Cavaliers.
All season, all playoffs, despite being down men, the Celtics have just found a way to win. They need to do that one more time to reach the Finals.
Marcus Smart on Game 7: ‘It’s not going to be pretty’
Game 7s are not pretty basketball. Everyone is tight, shots clank off the front of the rim, and players tend to think rather than just react, sucking the flow out of the game. It’s a game for grinders.
“It’s not going to be pretty. You got to be able to get down and get dirty. You can’t go out and try to look pretty. You have to be ready for a dogfight. We got to be ready to come up with our nose bloodied. We got to be ready to come out with our mouth bloodied. We have to come out ready to fight.”
If Boston is going to win this game, they will do so with the physical, smart, and unrelenting defense that carried them all season. That’s their grit. Without Kevin Love (out with a concussion) the Celtics have one less scorer to worry about, but things do not necessarily get dramatically easier — LeBron James is going to get his buckets, but can the Celtics keep George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and the rest of the role players from helping out with big nights of their own.
Which one of these teams is better positioned to win a grinding, sloppy game? Who is willing to dive on the floor and give that little extra effort? A case can be made either way, but Sunday night will decide it.