LeBron James put forth another all-time performance in an elimination game Friday night against the Celtics. (Ron Schwane/AP)

James pushes all issues aside, wills Cavs to a win and a Game 7

by Candace Buckner

CLEVELAND — Quicken Loans Arena had fallen into a hush and four concerned teammates huddled and stared at the city of Cleveland’s — and the Cavaliers’ — biggest fear realized: LeBron James, down on the court, holding his right knee and wincing in pain.

James slowly rose, his expression turned placid, and he finished what he started, turning in another dominant performance in a 109-99 win in Game 6 over the Celtics, forcing these Eastern Confrerence finals to a seventh game Sunday night in Boston.

With his team facing elimination, James pushed past his fourth-quarter leg issue to finish with 46 points in 46 minutes to go with 11 rebounds and nine assists.

Friday night was not a “flu game” — the iconic moment Michael Jordan created in the 1997 NBA Finals — nor did it ascend to Willis Reed levels. Yet, James added another level to his legend. Consider: James has either had a triple-double or a 40-point game in each of the past seven games with his team facing elimination. He was 17 of 33 from the field against the Celtics, doing most of his damage after Kevin Love left the game in the first quarter.

He received help in the form of three teammates reaching double figures but make no mistake, the responsibility in beating back the Celtics belonged to James and he scored the big shots and made the necessary plays with the resolve of a man who has spent the last seven Junes on the hardwood.

When asked for his thoughts on James’s night, Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue stifled a chuckle then started with just one word.

“Greatness,” Lue said. “I think championship pedigree. You know, giving it his all. We needed that, especially when Kevin went down.”

While the backcourt of Terry Rozier (28 points) and Jaylen Brown (27) stabilized Boston, the duo could not stop James. Quite literally. Within the final minute of the game, James no longer limped as he drove at Brown and scored at the rim while getting hacked.

After teammate Larry Nance Jr. fell into his knee, James went on to score 12 points.

“I’ll try to get him to bang his other knee, so he could get 24,” Lue joked after the game.

“He delivered. He was up for the challenge,” Lue said. “He carried us home, as usual.”

The chants of “M-V-P” resounded in the sold-out arena, and that praise peaked at the buzzer when the arena announcer intoned: “We’re going to Game 7!”

James improved to 13-9 in elimination games.

In the 21 previous elimination games over his career, James has averaged 33.5 points, the most of any player in league history in those moments. Although he also played as an all-around threat (10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists in elimination games), James embraced the instinct to score — quite possibly, because he had to take over.

Only five minutes into the game, Love experienced a painful encounter with Jayson Tatum. As the Celtic rookie chased George Hill from the baseline to the three-point arc, Love, who was standing still and unaware of the action happening behind him, absorbed the worst end of a head-to-head collision with Tatum. Love crumpled to the hardwood, only peeling his hands from his head to signal to the Cleveland bench for help.

Love walked to the locker room on his own power but his injury sapped Cleveland’s depth. After one freak accident, James was left without an all-star wingman and yet the crucial moment served as the backdrop to yet another masterful performance.

By the time Love exited the game, James had attempted just two shots but soon turned aggressive. He attempted a plodding drive against Marcus Morris, who’s not easily moved as a 6-foot-9 forward, and that post possession ended with a miss at the rim and James raising his arms in protest for a foul call. But by his next drive, James quit begging and simply barreled over the younger and skinnier Tatum.

After the first quarter, Brown scored 15 of Boston’s 25 points and the Celtics held the five-point lead. James sat on eight points but wouldn’t rest again through the half. His night was just beginning.

In-game updates, by Tim Bontemps

The Eastern Conference finals are headed to a seventh game.

Back-to-back dagger threes from LeBron James in the exact same manner from the exact same spot pushed him up to 44 points on the night, giving the Cavaliers an 11-point lead in the final minutes.

This is now the seventh time James has scored over 40 points in these playoffs, and Cleveland has needed all of them in a game the Cavaliers lost Kevin Love in the first quarter.

When you have James on your side, though, it doesn’t matter.

With under three minutes to go in Cleveland, the Cavaliers are clinging to a seven-point lead, and trying to get over the finish line to force a Game 7 Sunday night in Boston.

With no Kevin Love, and with LeBron James having played all but 57 seconds at the end of the third quarter, the Cavaliers look to be tiring late — but should have enough of a lead to hold on.

James has shown little bounce since injuring his leg, but has 38 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists as he tries to drag himself and his team over the finish line.

LeBron James finally took a seat for the final 57.3 seconds of the third quarter, the first time in this game he’s spent any time on the bench.

It’s been a remarkable performance from James with his season on the line, with 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists while committing only two turnovers.

Meanwhile, Cleveland goes into the fourth quarter leading 83-73 after Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier sandwiched three-pointers around a Kyle Korver triple inside that final minute as James watched from the bench.

It seems likely James will return to start the fourth quarter, and play the remainder of this one. And, with Kevin Love out for the game, James will need to keep banging home buckets for Cleveland to close this game out.

Want to know what makes LeBron James special?

This sequence:

There is no other player in the league capable of both sprinting out in a 2-on-1 fast break and converting that layup, only to then come flying back down at the other end full speed to reject Rozier’s layup at the rim.

That’s especially true when one factors in James having played every second of this game so far, and playing in the 99th game of the 15th season of his NBA career.

Has anyone figured out officially if he’s a cyborg yet? Because he just might be one.

Want to know one of the reasons why Boston finds itself in yet another hole on the road?

Al Horford just scored his first basket of the game … in the first minute of the second half.

It has truly been baffling how this series has zigged and zagged back and forth, depending on which team was the home team in each game. It’s one thing if that happened in the first round between evenly matched teams. But in the Eastern Conference finals? That’s another thing, entirely.

The Cavaliers are without Kevin Love. They had to play LeBron James for the entire first half.

And they still lead by 11 at halftime.

A 28-8 run covering most of the second quarter allowed Cleveland to storm into the lead and take a 54-43 edge into halftime, putting the Cavaliers 24 minutes from a return trip to Boston for Game 7 Sunday night.

James was magnificent in the first half, going for 25 points, five rebounds and five assists while playing every second — something that may have happened anyway, but had to happen once Love went to the locker room a few minutes into the first quarter after a collision with Jayson Tatum and didn’t return.

Jaylen Brown had an outstanding first quarter for Boston, scoring 15 of his 17 points, while Terry Rozier added 13 on 5-for-7 shooting from the field. Jeff Green, meanwhile, gave Cleveland a big boost off the bench with nine points playing in place of Love, and likely will get the start for him in the second half.

Love is being evaluated for a concussion and will not return to the game.

LeBron James remains on the court well into the second quarter, and Kevin Love remains in the locker room. That might be the case for the remainder of this game.

If Love is unable to come back, it might take a 48-minute effort from James for Cleveland to win this game.

The Cavaliers needed George Hill to have a big game in Game 6, and that was before Kevin Love left the game in the first quarter after colliding with Jayson Tatum.

With six quick points early on, Hill is delivering. Cleveland has been a far different team in this series when Hill has been engaged and attacking, taking the Cavaliers from a staid offense to a dynamic one. Like so many things on both sides in this series, Hill has looked generally looked this way at home and then far less on the road.

Cleveland can worry about that changing in a possible Game 7 if the Cavaliers can make it there. In the meantime, they’ll take Hill keeping this up for another 36 minutes or so.

The last thing the Cavaliers needed in the do-or-die situation in which they find themselves was for Kevin Love to be lying on the court holding his head halfway through the first quarter.

That’s exactly what happened after Love got the worse end of an accidental head-to-head collision with Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum, crashing to the ground and holding his head, to the point where George Hill had to commit an intentional foul to stop play while Love made no attempt to get up. Love headed to Cleveland’s locker room, having gingerly walked off the court. It seems likely that he will be entering into the league’s concussion protocol, which he’d have to pass before returning.

Cleveland has struggled to get consistent offense in this series outside of Love and LeBron James. If Love has to miss any time here, that could be a massive problem for Cleveland’s chances of pushing this series to a seventh game Sunday night.

When this season began, the expectation was that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers would meet for a fourth straight time in the NBA Finals.

Now, the NBA heads into Memorial Day weekend with a seemingly unfathomable scenario unfolding: first the Cavaliers, and then the Warriors, hosting games that could end their seasons.

That’s not how this was supposed to happen. Cleveland and, in particular, Golden State, were supposed to roll through the playoffs. But here we are, staring at the two teams that have ruled the league for four years both on the brink.

Cleveland will first welcome the Boston Celtics to Quicken Loans Arena Friday night. Boston — a dreadful road team this postseason, going just 1-6 away from the friendly confines of TD Garden — will try to become the first team to dethrone LeBron James in the East since … the Celtics, when they beat James in 2010 to end his first stint in Cleveland with a resounding thud.

The circumstances this time are different. The Cavaliers have won a championship this time, and have made the Finals the past three years in a row. This year’s team wildly and unpredictably swings from one pole to the other, never providing a good barometer on a game-to-game basis for how it will perform.

Still, it’s hard to see James and the Cavaliers losing this game, in part because it’s just hard to ever see him losing a game that matters. As the greatest player of his generation, James always seems to find a way to get it done when it counts. But the Celtics’ wretched play away from Boston also factors in. Will that change in a road elimination game against James? That seems like a bridge too far for a team that couldn’t close out the Milwaukee Bucks in the same situation two rounds ago.

Stopping James is just a bit harder than that.

For the league, though, there’s nothing better than a potential holiday weekend full of climatic action, with the league’s two most iconic teams fighting for their playoff lives.


Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers (Celtics lead, 3-2): 8:30 p.m., ESPN

Additional reading:

Kevin Durant is reverting to old habits as Warriors get pushed to brink of elimination

Rockets’ Chris Paul will miss Game 6 with hamstring injury

The Warriors’ unbalanced roster is catching up with them at the worst possible time

NBA playoffs: Cavaliers finally play good defense but fizzle on offense in Game 5 loss

LeBron James and the Cavaliers miss Kyrie Irving more than the Celtics do

The Warriors’ unbalanced roster is catching up with them at the worst possible time

Rockets draw even with Warriors in Western Conference finals

The graybeard Cavaliers have turned experience into their best weapon against the Celtics

The Cavaliers were left for dead. Now, it feels like their series to lose.

Only Steph Curry can make the Warriors the most dangerous version of themselves

The NBA Finals blueprint for the Cavs, Celtics, Rockets and Warriors

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With all these blowouts in the NBA playoffs, will fans stop paying attention?

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Luka Doncic should go No. 1 and other thoughts from the NBA draft combine

In Cavaliers-Celtics, a tale of two coaches: Scorn for Tyronn Lue, praise for Brad Stevens

At the NBA draft combine, mystery is more valuable than getting on the court

Draymond Green trademarks ‘Hampton 5,’ doesn’t seem to realize it’s not The Hamptons

Faced with a make-or-break moment, the Rockets responded like champions

If the Rockets beat the Warriors, Clint Capela will be the reason

LeBron James may have had a lousy Game 1, but he still has a mind like a steel trap

LeBron James owns the NBA’s Eastern Conference and isn’t ready to let go

What I got wrong about the Boston Celtics

 James Harden’s biggest advantage is his brain

The Rockets can limit the effectiveness of the Warriors’ ‘Hamptons Five’ lineup

Steve Kerr touts Warriors’ experience edge over Rockets: ‘Our guys have rings’

Rockets are the toughest playoff opponent Steve Kerr’s Warriors have ever faced

Pau Gasol: ‘Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.’

Dragging these flawed Cavs to the NBA Finals would be LeBron James’s most remarkable feat

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