BOSTON — With a little help from his friends, though not that much, LeBron James dazzled once again in a playoff elimination game, sending the Cavaliers back to the N.B.A. finals on Sunday night and keeping himself in a Cleveland uniform for at least another two weeks.
In a game that looked bleak at the outset, with the Cavaliers playing without the injured Kevin Love, James powered an offense that started the game atrociously and then did just enough to break the upstart hearts of the young Boston Celtics, 87-79, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
James played all 48 minutes and finished with 35 points, 15 rebounds and 9 assists, missing a triple-double only because the Cavaliers missed 26 of 35 3-pointers, many of them uncontested shots set up by pinpoint passes from James.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, the Celtics were even worse, shooting 7 for 39 from behind the 3-point line. As a result, Boston’s somewhat improbable playoff run, which came with two All-Star players — Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving — lost to injury, ended in stark disappointment. And with James triumphant once again.
“We’ve been counted out for a long time this season,” a sweat-drenched James said while slipping on his 2018 N.B.A. finals cap. After pointing out that the Celtics had been undefeated at home in the playoffs until Sunday, James saluted the forward Jeff Green, who started in Love’s place and contributed 19 points and 8 rebounds for Cleveland.
James had approached the chance to book an eighth consecutive N.B.A. finals appearance and a ninth over all with the measured calm of a man who readily understood that all he had done to get the Cavaliers this far was, or should be, beyond reproach.
“For me, I don’t put too much added pressure on myself, I just go out and play my game,” James said. “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.”
Indeed, as much of a lightning rod as James has been at various points in his career, what critic in his or her right mind could find fault in his latest reputational climb up that mythical Mt. St. Michael?
It might be a reach to say this edition of James’s Cavaliers’ supporting cast was even worse than the 2006-07 version — think Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — that was swept in the finals by San Antonio. But few contenders have ever dealt with what the Cavaliers experienced this season — a revolving door operating like a thrill ride gone haywire, creating what James has described as “four or five seasons wrapped in one.”
In the first of those incarnations, with a roster that included Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, the common line on the Cavaliers was that they were a virtual All-Star team — from a half-dozen years ago. They were old. They were fragile. And the trade-deadline deals this past February that remade the Cavaliers roster — though welcomed by an exasperated James — must have made him feel as if he’d already left Cleveland for a second time.
Beyond making the Cavaliers younger and fitter, those trades didn’t exactly elevate Koby Altman, Cleveland’s general manager, to the larcenous level of Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ impresario whose managerial touch in personnel operations has turned everything but the Celtics’ uniforms to gold.
Of course, James’s insistence on signing short-term contracts to maximize his leverage surely contributed to the trading of Irving to Boston last summer and to the Cavaliers’ ongoing roster issues. Upon his return from Miami in 2014, James also lobbied for the acquisition of Love, a fine player though unlucky with injuries, the latest being his collision with the Celtics’ Jason Tatum early in Game 6 that put him in concussion protocol and left him on the sidelines on Sunday night.
And yet, his organizational power-tripping aside, James has been everything Cleveland desperately wanted back after his 2010 departure prompted Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ owner, to publicly disparage him. Over the last four seasons, in his second run with the Cavaliers, James has stretched the limits of his long-established greatness, encapsulated by his chase-down of Golden State’s Andre Iguodala late in Game 7 of the 2016 finals against Golden State.
That blocked shot preceded the Irving 3-pointer that delivered Cleveland its first major professional sports title in 52 years and climaxed a rally from a 3-1 deficit in the series against a team that had won a record 73 games in the regular season.
It was a historic title, and a profound achievement for James. It was also his last Game 7 until he conquered the Indiana Pacers in the first round of this year’s postseason. And then came Sunday night, which only took place because James notched 46 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists in Game 6 against the Celtics. And now James, and his grateful teammates, wait to see who will win Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, with the Warriors needing to beat the Rockets in Houston to take on the Cavaliers a fourth straight time.
Asked before Sunday’s showdown in Boston if he expected the 33-year-old James to play all 48 minutes after such an exhausting playoff run, Cavaliers’ Coach Tyronn Lue said the plan was to rest James in the final minute of the first three quarters. However, he added, if he had to keep James on the court the entire time, “I will.”
And he had to when it became evident early on that the Cavaliers would need every drop of James’s perspiration to survive. The Celtics built their lead behind Tatum, the precocious rookie, who led them with 24 points, and the veteran big man Al Horford. But they couldn’t hold on.
“Every possession is its own challenge,” James would say when it was over, after the King of the Eastern Conference had done it again.
For 11 of his 15 pro seasons, he has stood and delivered for the franchise of his native Northeast Ohio. A convincing argument could be made that if the speculation is true and he is about to stage another free-agent exit, this time it should be to a standing ovation and a parade right to the state border.
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