If there was ever a time to doubt LeBron James, this was it.
The Celtics looked like the better, more well-rounded team heading into the Eastern Conference Finals.
Their youthful energy, athleticism, home court advantage and the Cavaliers’ role players’ inconsistency gave them significant advantages on paper.
But as this Boston squad learned, the seventh game of an NBA playoff series is an experience unlike any other, especially when you’re going up against one of the greatest players in basketball history.
It seems that every year we fall into the trap of thinking that this is finally the time where James won’t be heading back to the NBA finals. When his teams struggle, there’s an air of hopefulness that we might see him fail and receive some proof that he’s human.
And I can understand why – prolonged greatness can be tiring for fans of any of the other 29 teams in the league. Yet, ultimately, in the dying moments of this game, the TD Garden fell silent as the Boston fans, like the rest of us, realised that the James dynasty in the east is continuing with no end in sight.
It was a great series, and congratulations to the Celtics for a remarkable season. Here are some talking points in reaction to the final game, which ended 87-79 in Cleveland’s favour.
Jayson Tatum continues to look like a star
With the Celtics trailing at the midway point of the fourth quarter, Tatum made two incredible plays that sent the arena into a frenzy and had me thinking, if only for a minute, that Boston was going to pull this game out.
On the first one, he exploded past Tristan Thompson, got into the lane and posterised James in a manner that we’ve seen few players ever manage to pull off. Shortly after, he hit a huge three pointer off the dribble to give Boston a one-point lead.
Moments like these, of which he has had plenty this year, showcase the massive potential that this rookie has. His athleticism combined with a versatile array of moves points to a future as one of the league’s most unstoppable scorers.
While he didn’t play as much as some of the league’s other top rookies this year, the workload he shouldered in the playoffs (playing 42 minutes in this game, for example) if proof enough that he can handle being one of the featured pieces on an elite team.
And to think he’s probably just going to be the fourth option on a Celtics team featuring Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford next year. That’s scary. The jury is still out on Markelle Fultz, but it’s looking more and more like Danny Ainge pulled off another trade heist.
James controls the game again
James’ totals of 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists is somehow just an average performance for him in elimination games – at least stat wise. It doesn’t sound as good as a 40-point triple double, but he came out and set the tone for the rest of his team.
This was an ugly game where players on both sides struggled to hit shots, and so every basket and defensive stop counted. The Cavaliers’ defensive efforts always seem to rely on how much intensity James brings. It’s almost unreasonable to ask him to expend much energy on that side of the ball when he has to carry their offence, but he was up to the task tonight.
Plays like the one where he rejected Terry Rozier’s dunk attempt are inspiring, and Cleveland pulled themselves together to get a few crucial stops in the second half.
And of course, he ran the offence effectively once again. He was physical in the post, overpowering the smaller Boston defenders that switched onto him. He also picked apart the defence with smart passes that took advantage of the Celtics’ rotations, picking up both traditional assists and the ‘hockey assists’ that he won’t get much credit for.
Despite his teammates struggling in the first half, he stayed true to the play style he’s known for and continued to generate open looks for his supporting cast. Eventually, they rewarded him for it.
The rest of the Cavaliers stepped up when it counted
On that note, we can’t give James all the credit. With Kevin Love out, a collection of players did just enough to secure the victory.
Jeff Green was massive with 19 points and eight rebounds, hitting a couple difficult shots around the rim and taking advantage of some open looks at threes. You can’t help but be happy for a guy who has come back from open heart surgery and the possibility of having his NBA career ended to play a crucial role in the biggest game of his life.
JR Smith, who at times has looked completely washed up, decided to show up today and chipped in 12 important points. Thompson had some nice hustle plays and deserves a ton of credit for his play against Horford throughout this whole series.
George Hill and Kyle Korver only combined for nine points but had a couple of massive baskets in the fourth quarter.
All James needs is a little help to give this team a chance to win, and a combination of strong defensive effort and a bit of scoring from the role players was the key in this one.
Inexperience shows for the Celtics
Boston came out strong in this game, fueled by the confidence of playing at home and eager to take down the King. They hung tough until the end but were ultimately undone by some atrocious offensive performances.
Jaylen Brown, Rozier and Marcus Smart combined to go a woeful 3-26 from three-point range. Rozier, in particular, was disappointing. He played well this season, generating some buzz about him being in line to land a big contract before too long.
However, he was just flat out bad in the two games Boston had to close out the series. He lived up to his ‘Scary Terry” nickname, but in the wrong way – Celtics fans were getting scared to see him on the floor getting abused defensively and failing to hit any of the big shots he was making against Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
After Tatum’s three with around six minutes left in the game, the Celtics fell apart. A crucial turnover here, some bad shot selection there. It seemed like they were playing with uncharacteristic jitters and nervousness.
It’s understandable, as this is a young group, but there are no excuses in a Game 7 – especially a winnable one at home. This time around, the moment was just too big for them.
Next year will be different.