By MyFM's Jake Archer - The Celtics positioned themselves to be on the brink of a trip to the NBA Finals. All they had to do was win one out of two games against LeBron James to earn that right, which was a difficult but doable task. It felt like it was all lining up correctly, but in the end LeBron made the plays that he needed to and Boston's youth caught up to them. Let's check out how it all went down.
Heading into Game 6, it was pretty easy to feel confident. The Celtics had the advantage and had put LeBron's back up against the wall. It felt like it was time for the C's to finally come through and get just their second road win of the postseason to move on. Even if they didn't though, it was excusable and we'd have another go at it. Well that's what I thought, but LeBron is like a monster in a scary movie in that you need to kill him when you have the chance. Make sure you snuff out any hope he might have.
With the Cavaliers crowd tense, LeBron proved why he's one of the best players of all time. We've seen him put up monster game after monster game, but I actually think this was one of his masterpieces. The stat line was great, but the fact that he took over and willed himself to fight another day in the waning moments is what stood out. It's something we've seen him do against the Celtics, or really any team, quite a few times.
The first quarter actually went the Celtics way, as they started hot and took a 25-20 lead into the second. The Cavaliers had also lost their second best player, Kevin Love, early on when he and Jayson Tatum collided. Love took the brunt of the hit (Tatum was able to keep playing after passing a concussion test on the bench) as he would miss the rest of the game while being treated for a concussion and Cleveland's plans had to change. LeBron had to do more and he played the first 35 minutes of the contest without being removed.
Of course, even as I begrudgingly praise LeBron right now, I have to mention that he pulled a perfect "LeBron move" when he banged shins with Larry Nance Jr. and then went down to the floor like he'd been shot. "The King" will never fail to play up the theatrics and you would have thought he'd just sustained a gruesome injury by the way he writhed in pain on the ground and then iced it on the bench. What a clown this guy is, every single time. (The guy actually said "Luckily, I was able to finish the game." Yikes!)
Anyway, the Cavaliers had stormed back in the second to take a 54-43 lead at the break. Boston has seemingly had terrible second quarters a number of times and now had to fight back again on the road. They couldn't do it, as they closed to within seven in the final three minutes of the game, but LeBron took over and made sure he broke their backs. On two straight possessions, James was guarded by Tatum out on the left wing and both times, James put a move on him and drilled a three right in his face. He was pounding his chest and the Cleveland crowd (which was worried that he was playing their last game at home) exploded. He added a three-point play and the C's were officially buried. "Cavs in 7" chants rang out and everyone knew the series was going back to Boston. It was a tough 109-99 loss for Boston, but they had to put it behind them and regroup.
LeBron's final stat line featured 46 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and one block. He was a +15 to lead everyone in plus/minus. The help he got came mainly from double digit scorers George Hill, Jeff Green and Nance. It was puzzling to see how little Ty Lue played Kyle Korver, but the only Cavs to not see action were Ante Zizic, Rodney Hood and Jose Calderon.
On Boston's side, every Celtic got a little bit of run. They were led by Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown who scored 28 and 27 points respectively. Tatum, Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart also scored in double figures. Al Horford and Aron Baynes pretty painfully no-showed this one and you can't have that from two of your starters and expect good things to happen. Boston was outrebounded 44-31 and simply did not show the fight they needed to in the post.
Now it was time for a decisive Game 7 in Boston. It all would come down to this one final game on Sunday night to determine so much about the future of the NBA. Would the Celtics get to the Finals ahead of schedule and get valuable experience or would LeBron drag another rag-tag group of bums to the championship round? He was the man who was looking to go to his eighth straight NBA Finals and it wasn't going to be easy to stop him.
One thing that did play in the Celtics favor (besides home court advantage) was the fact that Love was ruled out for Game 7 due to his concussion. The advanced stats told us that Love being out was actually good for the Cavaliers, but I felt like anytime you can take away an All Star one busts his butt, you've got to like that as a Celtic fan. I was sure that the Garden crowd would be rocking and that the Celtics would be ready to roll. Focus had not been an issue for them and now they'd need to give it all they had.
Well, things started nicely. The Celtics had a fast start and the Cavaliers were chucking up bricks. There were a few moments when LeBron's body language just looked like he was of the edge of calling it quits. I think if the Cavs role players played maybe two or three more minutes of crappy basketball, James was going to shut it down. He was already out on playing defense, as he refused to chase Brown around or run back several times. The Celtics built up a 12 point lead in the first half at one point and it was feeling like they might make their first trip back to the Finals since 2010 (the last time LeBron wasn't there). However, the Cavs kicked it into gear and cut the lead to just four at the break.
Midway through the third is when things started to tighten up and really go the other way for Boston. They were still up four but LeBron and Green banged in back-to-back three-pointers to take the lead. After James found Thompson for an alley-oop, he threw the ball away to Rozier who went streaking down the court on a fastbreak. LeBron chased him down and smacked his layup off the backboard to send his teammates the other way with the ball. Green (who stunk for the Celtics and murdered their hopes of winning back when he played for them, and now did this to us to become one of my least favorite players ever) drew a foul on the other end and made a free-throw for the momentum to be fully back on Cleveland's side.
Boston hung in there and all hope was not lost. With just under seven minutes to play, Tatum streaked through the lane and posterized LeBron (something Rozier had failed at doing earlier in the game, when James should have been called for a foul and then stayed down his end of the court with a dumb staredown) to send the Garden crowd (who I don't think seemed that great for a late Game 7 on Memorial Day weekend) into a frenzy. The rookie stared at James and bumped him after the dunk as if to say "I just owned you." For those out there saying that it was a bad move and that it was the moment that spurred LeBron on, that's simply incorrect. James came down the floor and committed a turnover, with Tatum following up by cashing in a three. It was also payback for James bumping Tatum after hitting a three in Game 6. The Celtics had a 72-72 lead and for a fleeting moment, it seemed things would end the way we all wanted.
What stinks about Tatum being so young is that he doesn't know he's as good as he is yet. After the dunk and the three, the forward did not touch the ball for the next six minutes and the Celtics went on a five minute scoreless drought. It was really what defined the game because the Cavs were able to go on a 15-2 run that would push them over the hump and give them an extremely low-scoring 87-79 victory. That's the most disappointing thing about this game. Boston lost it more than LeBron and the Cavs won it. If you are a LeBron fan and you want to cry out about how he's the best ever and how this was his greatest accomplishment, you sound ridiculous. LeBron is a fantastic player and the team around him right now is among his worst, but he needed the banged up, young Celtics to lay an egg on offense to move past them in Game 7. It wasn't that impressive!
The only thing that I'll give LeBron credit for is that he made the Celtics pay for their poor play. He conserved his energy and scored 12 of his points in the final quarter when Boston was throwing up on themselves. That's it. 35 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and two blocks in 48 minutes are great numbers, but watch that game with your eyes and tell me he should have done anything else. I'm not going to pat him on the back for doing exactly what any All Star worth his salt would do. At the end of the day, Green, Thompson and JR Smith all had similar or better plus/minus ratings and made the difference for Cleveland. However the story of the game is as simple as this...
Boston scored 79 points. They went 7 of 39 from beyond the arc. Rozier had possibly his worst game of the season by scoring just four points. Only Tatum, Brown, Horford and Morris were able to get in double figures. It was a rock fight and the Celtics simply could not put the ball in the basket when they needed to. The stage was a little too big and they played like the young players they are.
Now LeBron moves on to face the Golden State Warriors for the fourth straight year (and his eighth straight overall). I hate the fact that we got so close to something changing with two Game 7's and in the end it's another boring Finals between the two least likeable teams in sports. I can't even decide who to root for because they are equally disgusting to me. This is just how the NBA, and really basketball, work. There's no other sport where it's so predictable and one player can make a difference that they do. LeBron will tire out and probably go get smoked in the Finals (I'm predicting a sweep) and then he'll be evaluating his options to see if he wants to leave Cleveland again. Surprise, surprise!
LeBron's now beaten the Celtics a bunch of times, but let's remember that most of those times came with an aging group of superstars like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett or a young group of guys trying to make a name for themselves. He doesn't own Boston, they are just simply the team that gets close enough to taking him down. I'll give him credit for some things, but people just want to build him up for everything and that's foolish. Game 6 was great, Game 7 was not his doing.
How do we look at the Celtics? That's for another article because this one is already too long. Stay tuned, because I'm going to come back with our post-year recap and look ahead to the 2018-2019 season. I guess, enjoy baseball for now?