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It took a royal performance from the King for Cavaliers to survive

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/26/2018

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CLEVELAND — LeBron James lives to fight another day and the Celtics have another game to play. 


The Celtics came to Cleveland to settle this Eastern Conference finals series and reserve their seat in the NBA Finals. Instead, they’ll have to settle for the drama of a Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday. 

James delivered another masterpiece for his elimination game oeuvre (46 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists), and the Celtics were at a loss once again away from home, suffering their seventh setback in eight road games this postseason, a 109-99 defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday at Quicken Loans Arena.

The good news is that LeBron, the Lord of the East since 2011, has never beaten the Celtics in a playoff series without a strong supporting cast. The Celtics eliminated him on the parquet on their way to the Finals in both 2008 (a memorable Game 7 Eastern Conference semifinals shootout between James and Paul Pierce) and in a six-game second-round series in 2010. In this series, James seemed both exhausted and exasperated by his current complementary corps entering Game 6.

It’s often looked like Cleveland is the team that misses injured All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, dealt from Cleveland to Boston last summer, more than the Green.

So, perhaps, more troubling than James’s transcendent performance was that Cleveland’s complementary players boosted their play and their confidence. As great as James was playing all but 57 seconds, Cleveland needed its role players to step up after Kevin Love was forced to exit the game in the first quarter following a collision of craniums with Jayson Tatum. The loss of Cleveland’s other All-Star left the Cavs scoring-challenged.

RELATED: Twitter reacts to LeBron making clutch shots in Game 6

The much-maligned supporting cast, one that has been cited as the reason James will once again decamp Cleveland as a free agent after this season, answered the call, led by former Celtic and perpetual talent tease Jeff Green, who scored 9 of his 14 points in the first half. George Hill added 20 points, and Larry Nance Jr. had 10 points and 7 rebounds and made all five of his shots. Kyle Korver and Jordan Clarkson also chipped in with 6 points apiece as Cleveland’s bench outscored the Celtics’ bench, 36-23.

“I think they responded exceptionally well,” said James. “Jordan, Jeff, Kyle, and Larry, they just gave us a huge boost. It was just huge, and we needed it more than ever tonight with the situation that we were in.”

LeBron’s hoops helpers did their part in helping Cleveland build a 16-point second-half lead, but the young and relentless Celtics made a charge in the fourth quarter, cutting the lead to 7 with 2:47 to go. It was James who took Cleveland home and put Boston back on their travel itinerary with a pair of ridiculous back-to-back 3-pointers, replete with a chest-pounding celebration, that kept the Celtics at bay.

“Best player in the game,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “Special night tonight. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

Early on it looked like it might be the Celtics’ night and not LeBron’s. Perhaps trying to change their luck on the road, the Celtics came out wearing their home white uniforms. Why not?

It worked for a quarter as they surged to a 25-20 lead after the first 12 minutes. Jaylen Brown came out firing in the first, scoring 15 points on 6 of 8 shooting. Brown finished with 27 points. Terry Rozier led the Celtics with 28 points, making 10 of his 16 shots and 6 of his 10 3-pointers.

The Cavaliers turned the tables and turned it on in the second quarter, riding a 20-4 run to take a 44-34 lead with 4:59 left in the half.

Bron-Bron was living up to his elimination-game billing. He came in averaging 33.5 points per game in 21 career elimination games. He scored the final 8 points of the first half for Cleveland. James allowed the Cavaliers to match their largest lead of the first half (14) when he made an impossible one-legged, bad angle shot to put his team up, 54-40. The Love-less Cavs led, 54-43, at the half.

They were holding serve and the series was holding form — the home teams as won each game.

The Celtics trailed by as many as 16 in the third quarter, but they cut it to 10 entering the fourth quarter when Rozier connected on his fifth 3-pointer of the night to make it 83-73 with three seconds left in the third. Rozier, who played his high school ball at nearby Shaker Heights High School, shook off his usual road woes. He was one Celtic who looked right at home at the Q.

That wasn’t a bad situation for the Celtics to be in, considering they got Invisible Al on this night, instead of Playoff Al. Celtics veteran Al Horford didn’t score in the first half and had just one basket through three quarters. Horford finished with 6 points and 9 rebounds and was a team-worse minus-14 in a forgettable evening for the equanimous and classy big man.

But LeBron scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and Nance chipped in with 6 and the Cavaliers forced a Game 7.

LeBron’s reign isn’t over yet. James has appeared in seven straight NBA Finals, the last three with the Cavaliers. The last team to represent the East not led by LeBron was the 2010 Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Those Celtics ended James’s first act as a Cavalier, sending him into the infamous Summer of LeBron that saw him take his talents to South Beach to form a superteam in Miami.

The descendants of those Celtics will try to follow suit on Sunday, ostensibly ending LeBron’s second stint in Cleveland, and extending their unpredicted and enjoyable run through the playoffs with their two best players, Irving and forward Gordon Hayward, hors de hoops with season-ending injuries.

There wasn’t much to feel good about for the Celtics on a lost night in Northeast Ohio. But they can click their sneakers together and chant, “There is no place like home.”

The good news for the Green is that they haven’t lost in the playoffs on the parquet (10-0) and history, as it so often is when it comes to the NBA’s most storied franchise, is on their side. The Celtics led this series, 2-0. They are 37-0 all-time in series that they have led, 2-0.

It’s LeBron’s Last Stand against the Celtics’ home stand on Sunday.

“LeBron is different from a lot of other guys, but we got to get the job done,” said Rozier. “That’s no excuse.”

Related slideshow: 2018 NBA playoffs (provided by photo services)


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