CLEVELAND – Perhaps the best way to describe LeBron James’ performance on Friday – a season-salvaging 46 points in 46 minutes in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 109-99 victory in Game 6 to even the Eastern Conference finals – is to let others do it for you.
There’s Kyle Korver. Standing in front of his locker, Korver sported a sheepish grin. He’s been on the other end of this — too often. His 62-win Chicago Bulls in 2011 thought they could take out James. They couldn’t. In ’15, Korver’s 60-win Atlanta Hawks thought they had the firepower to knock James out of the playoffs. They didn’t.
Korver has seen James do some incredible things. He’s not sure he’s seen this.
“I’ve watched him play some really great games. That one is right up there towards the top,” Korver said. “And we needed it. His performance was amazing. I’ve said this a thousand times: I’m glad he’s on my team.”
There’s George Hill. Hill knows what it’s like to lose to LeBron, too. His Indiana Pacers’ chances at putting together a perennial contender were dashed by James’ greatness from 2012-14, when James was with the Miami Heat. “I really hated his guts,” Hill said. Before Game 6, James’ message to the Cavs, Hill said, was simple: be determined. Play hard. Leave it all out on the floor.
“That’s all he said,” Hill said. “I think every guy rallied around that and gave ourselves a chance.”
And what did Hill think of LeBron’s performance?
“That guy amazes me every night,” Hill said. “From the amount of minutes, the amount of years he’s got, the amount of fouls he gets on his body, and guys he has hanging off his body. What he does night in, night out is remarkable … it’s just something you really can’t explain. It’s just something special.”
There’s Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. It was a rough 48 hours for Lue, who found himself under siege for admitting after Game 5 that Boston’s decision not to play Semi Ojeleye affected the minutes he gave Korver. No one knows better than Lue the energy James has had to exert this season, the force he had to use just to keep Cleveland in the top half of the playoff bracket. So how would he describe James’ ability to summon the energy needed to keep Cleveland’s season going?
“Greatness,” Lue said.
No player is better in elimination games than James. That’s not hyperbole — that’s fact. He’s averaging 34.1 points in elimination games, per ESPN Stats & Info, tops among players who have competed in at least five of them. In his last seven, James has either posted 40 points or racked up a triple-double. His 46 and 11 night on Friday was the fourth 40-plus point, 10-plus rebound effort in an elimination game.
The only player with as many: Wilt Chamberlain.
To watch James is to watch NBA history unfold in real time. The Cavs shouldn’t have won this game. Really, they shouldn’t have. In Games 3 and 4, Cleveland held 15- and 16-point leads after the first quarter, respectively. In Game 6, they trailed by five. A head-to-head collision with Jayson Tatum in the first quarter knocked Kevin Love out, and Boston’s young guns — particularly Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — were rolling.
What does James do? He turns a five-point, first-quarter deficit into an 11-point halftime lead. He powers through Aron Baynes, Al Horford and Marcus Morris like a fullback bulldozing through a line. He floats in 3-pointers with defenders draped on him like he’s Stephen Curry. His teammates provided needed support — Hill, Larry Nance Jr. and Jeff Green finished in double figures — giving James a chance to close the show. With 8 ½ minutes to go in the fourth and Boston within seven, Larry Nance tumbled into James’ leg, sending James to floor and silencing the 20,562 in attendance. He got up, hobbled, and scored 12 points in the final eight minutes.
“I tried to get him to bang the other knee,” Lue joked, “so then we could have 24.”
Addressing the media after the game, James was deferential. He praised his teammates. “They gave us a huge boost in that second quarter,” James said. He addressed his leg injury (“I felt some pain throughout my entire right side of my ankle, into my leg”) and the need for him to stay in the game (“Our team is built on me being out on the floor to be able to make plays”).
And he got reflective. When asked about his ability to play this well in big moments, he again cited his coaches and teammates for empowering him, recalling a childhood memory to emphasize why.
“My first year ever playing basketball, we won a championship,” James said. “My coach at the banquet gave everybody an MVP trophy. Everybody. And right then I knew that this is a team game. It’s not about one individual, and how much one individual can do in order to win championships. In order to win, you have to have a full team.
“The second year, we won it again, and we all got MVP trophies again. It’s just been instilled in me since I was 9 years old, when I first started playing, of what it means to be in a situation where your teammates rely on you. Just making the right play, no matter if it’s a shot or a pass. I’ve always been taught that.”
Six games down, one to go, and the Cavs know that if they are to move on to the Finals, James will have to be as good — or better — in Game 7. Cleveland paid a price on Friday. Love suffered a head injury — the Cavs were careful not to diagnose a concussion, but Love has suffered three in his career and the collision with Tatum sure looked like one — and there are no guarantees he will be ready to play Sunday. James walked gingerly around the Cavs’ locker room, and J.R. Smith, who tweaked his ankle in the fourth quarter, had a noticeable limp leaving it.
The home team has dominated this series, and Boston didn’t leave Cleveland discouraged. “We know LeBron is a lot different than other guys,” Rozier said, “but we’ve got to get the job done.” Lue says the Cavs have the blueprint to win in Boston, but to this point they have not come close to doing it.
“You have got to be poised,” James said. “You’ve got to be able to handle a punch or two. And you’ve got to be able to combat that and be just as solid and just as aggressive on the offensive end.”
Sunday night, TD Garden, and James will have another opportunity to showcase his brilliance. Inside the Cavs’ locker room, there is a familiar refrain: James lives for this. He has staved off elimination in this series once. In Boston, he will have a chance to do it again.
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