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Opinion: Game 7 against LeBron James: It doesn’t get better than this

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/27/2018 By Tara Sullivan

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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The smoke has cleared from LeBron James’s tour de force performance Friday night in Cleveland, a 46-point outburst so complete and so completely dominant it left the postgame and next-day conversations equally centered around the NBA’s biggest, brightest star. The wonder at James’s latest personal highlight reel deserves to live on in basketball lore, but for now, it’ll have to wear off just enough for the focus to shift forward.

To a night being brought to you by the two best words in sports.

Game Seven.

Winner goes to the NBA Finals. Loser goes home.

Who can wait?

Here it comes Sunday night at TD Garden, here it comes with all its beautiful intensity and interwoven passions, with its bottom-line stakes and hyped-up energy. And here, between the Celtics and Cavaliers, it arrives as its own sort of basketball trial, the parquet court ready to deliver a verdict on how much these young Celtics have truly grown up. Are they ready to reduce James’s memorable performance to a farewell address to the Eastern Conference, to send James home one series short of the Finals for the first time in eight years? Or will King James reign for yet another year and represent the East as he goes for his fourth championship title?

Is it time for a(nother) changing of the basketball guard?

The Celtics and the Cavs have done this dance before, but the 15-year veteran James is no longer tangoing with the likes of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, or Ray Allen, no longer the same frustrated kid who walked out of a 2010 series loss to Boston and straight into a free agency frenzy that was an unmitigated PR disaster but a hindsight-proven basketball success. James has made it to the NBA Finals every year since notoriously taking his talents to South Beach, winning two times with the Heat before returning to lead a triumphant, drought-ending title run back in Cleveland two years ago.

What a circle it would be for this new roster of Celtic stars to usher the free-agent-to-be out of Cleveland once again, and in the process, extend a heady postseason run only the most optimistic of all Boston fans had to believe was possible. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier may only have six years of NBA experience among them, but in a seven-game first-round win over Milwaukee, in a five-game second-round run over Philadelphia, and in these first six games against Cleveland, they’ve shown they can handle the stakes, cashing in on the home-court advantage they earned in the regular season to the tune of a 10-0 Garden playoff record.

Getting No. 11 will be the toughest of all for the Celtics, even as the Cavaliers will be without the concussed Kevin Love, even with the home crowd behind them, because it will have to come at the expense of the singleminded, singularly focused, simply amazing James. But do it and alter the landscape of the conference going forward. Do it and return to an East that could be without James, a free agent again at season’s end. The 76ers, who could make a play for James, will certainly be a most worthy rival, but the Celtics will welcome the return of All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, to rejoin teammates who will have learned so much in their absence.

“I’m sure we’ve slipped on this, but I’ve tried my best all year not to talk about their age, to them and in the media,” coach Brad Stevens said Saturday, emphasizing the opportunity of a Game 7 rather than the pressure. “It’s not about that. It’s about they’re really good basketball players, really committed to each other, a great group of guys. It’s a fun team, a care-about team. We all have a job to do to go out and do the best job we can. If it’s a game in September or Game 7, we need to be ready to play. We will be ready to play.”

So will James. Remember, it was he who ended the reign of the new Big Three group, a 45-point, 15-rebound game in Game 6 of the 2012 East finals that pushed Miami past Boston. That one wasn’t Game 7, but it was played at TD Garden. This one is Game 7, and James has won his last five of them.

“Just go out, trust what you’ve built on all year. For me, I don’t put too much added pressure on myself,” James said after Friday’s victory, when he played 46:06 of a possible 48 minutes, when he drove a stake through the Boston heart with back-to-back fall-away 3-pointers inside the final two minutes. “I just go out and play my game. It’s a Game 7. It’s something that you wish you had when you’re done playing, but more than that, it’s just basketball for me. I know what I’m capable of doing, and I’m going to trust everything I put into it.”

Something tells me we won’t see another version of the tired James who dragged his way around the Garden court in Game 5. He, more than anyone out there, understands what’s at stake and what is required to get it. Still, these young Celtics are ready to ride their wave, too, and maybe eclipse him along the way.

“I remember, obviously as a kid, you always pay closer attention to Game 7s, and to have a chance now to be in a couple here in Boston, it’s really important we focus on the task at hand, play our best with great togetherness, great competitiveness, and enjoy that,” Stevens said. “That’s a thing I don’t think has been lost on this group throughout this whole journey. We have fun. That makes it even more fun to be around these guys.”

Related slideshow: Best of the NBA playoffs (provided by photo services)

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