LeBron James, Cavs Force Game 7 vs. Celtics Despite Kevin Love Injury

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives past Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown (7) during the first half of Game 6 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals Friday, May 25, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Ron Schwane/Associated Press

LeBron James lives for elimination games, and the Boston Celtics were reminded of that harsh reality Friday night when he erupted for 46 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in a 109-99 Game 6 win at Quicken Loans Arena to force Game 7. 

James played 46 minutes in the season-saving triumph as Cleveland was forced to make due without Kevin Love for all but five minutes after he collided with Jayson Tatum in the first quarter and was later ruled out as he underwent evaluation for a possible concussion. 

Jaylen Brown (27 points) led the way for the Celtics, while Jayson Tatum (15 points) and Al Horford (six points) failed to produce as Boston fell to 1-7 on the road in the playoffs. 

Young Celtics Face Seminal Moment in Game 7

The Celtics weren't supposed to be here in the first place. Not without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. 

But now that they're heading back to Boston with a chance to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals, silver linings won't suffice. The Celtics aren't just happy to be here. They belong, and they've proved that time and again thanks to the play of their young cornerstones. 

Which brings us to Game 7. 

While Tatum didn't look all that aggressive, and Brown managed just 12 points over the final 36 minutes after posting 15 in the first quarter, neither should fret as Boston prepares for a game that could serve as an unforgettable prologue to illustrious careers. 

Both Tatum and Brown have been excellent at TD Garden since the start of the postseason, and they've found another gear of late. Brown is averaging a team-best 21.0 points on 44.9 percent shooting from the field and 38.1 percent from three in three Eastern Conference Finals home games, and Tatum has sprinkled in 17.0 points a night while drilling six of his 17 attempts from beyond the arc. 

Al Horford—who's also in need of a bounce-back performance—will always serve as Boston's metronome. But if Tatum and Brown can go toe-to-toe with the greatest Game 7 player of all time and author a signature effort, their legends will balloon in a big way. 

            

LeBron Must Carry Energy From Game 6 on the Road    

LeBron James refused to indulge speculation that he fell flat in Game 5 because of fatigue.

On Friday, he ensured that wouldn't be a talking point entering Game 7.  

James' breathers were few and far between, and he iced his seventh 40-point game of the postseason with a pair of signature step-back threes from the left wing as he squashed every last ounce of hope the Celtics had of closing things out on the road: 

The question moving forward is how much juice James will have. 

Cleveland's Game 6 savior will play his 100th game of the season Sunday, and he's shouldered a 40-minute-per-night burden to this point in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

Plus, history isn't exactly on James' side. 

LeBron has played three career elimination games in Boston, and the only win came in 2012 when he saved the Miami Heat with a 45-point outburst in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. 

If there's a saving grace, it's that James—who has won his last five Game 7s and is 5-2 overall in those tilts—is peerless when it comes to his production in win-or-go-home settings: 

Adding another unforgettable performance to that list is going to require a Herculean effort in front of a hostile crowd, but it's hard to imagine LeBron lying down and coming up small the way he did on Wednesday. 

For now, the Celtics should be prepared to absorb another haymaker and counter with everything in their arsenal. 

               

Cavs Need Supporting Cast to Produce with or without Love

The Cavaliers' much-maligned supporting cast took a step toward respectability in Game 6.

George Hill scored a playoff-high 20 points, Jeff Green added 14 and Larry Nance Jr. stepped up with 10 points and seven rebounds after Love went down. Sprinkle in six points apiece from Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver, and Cleveland's bench outscored Boston's, 36-23. 

Facing elimination, those contributions were sorely needed. 

However, that group will need to replicate Friday's effort in Game 7 to fully salvage its reputation—with or without Love. 

Having the stretch 4 back would give the Cavs some added firepower, to be sure, but even so the onus can't be on James and Love to shoulder the load themselves. 

James seemed to feed off his teammates' growing confidence, and the Celtics' inability to contain Cleveland's newfound complement of slashers and shooters ultimately gave the Cavaliers the multi-dimensional attack they've been longing for. 

Another effort of that magnitude won't be easy to come by in an arena where the Cavaliers have lost their last three games by an average of 17 points, but at least they have a blueprint for success that can be followed with a fourth straight trip to the Finals at stake. 

                 

What's Next? 

A do-or-die showdown in Boston on Sunday with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. 

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