There was a point, relatively early in the second quarter of Game 7, where Terry Rozier peeled off Kyle Korver in the short corner to double-team LeBron James in the high post. It looked like an improvisation by Rozier—I can’t imagine Brad Stevens would ever script an action that leaves one of the NBA’s all-time shooters alone for maybe basketball’s highest-value shot—and it failed: LeBron spun over his right shoulder and instantly fed Korver for a wide, wide open look.
Korver was already 0-for-3 from beyond the arc, including a miss from the top of the key that he can make blindfolded. The Celtics were up 10, and looked far fresher and sharper and more organized, at both ends, so when Korver’s corner three clanged off and was rebounded by the Celtics, it looked at least to me like the Cavs were just simply dead. Down 10, struggling mightily to generate good looks, on the road against a team that hadn’t lost at home in the playoffs, without Kevin Love—if friggin’ Kyle Korver couldn’t bang home that shot, the Cavs were dead.
It turned out they were not dead, and if you’re still trying to wrap your brain fully around how it all went down, you are for sure not alone. It was a tight, choppy, at times downright ugly game, and the Celtics seemed like the sharper team virtually the entire way, even when the Cavs broke through late. It was only when the Celtics shifted into haymaker mode at the very end that a Cavs win seemed like an outcome this game and this series could actually produce. I still can’t think of anything the Cavs did especially well Saturday night, other than, like, “have LeBron” and “benefit from the Celtics missing 32 three-pointers.” Tristan Thompson was good? Jeff Green stepped up? Is that really how this happened? Jeff fucking Green stepped up?
At several points Sunday night Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson considered how lifting this collection of players, this season, to the NBA Finals measured up against LeBron’s other career accomplishments, with Van Gundy declaring firmly that James will “never have a greater accomplishment.” Wherever you stand on that—maybe you, like I do, consider beating the greatest regular season team in NBA history after going down 3-1 in the Finals to be just a smidgen more impressive than beating the Pacers, Raptors, and Celtics in the Eastern Conference playoffs—you will no doubt note that Van Gundy’s declaration forecloses on the possibility of LeBron lifting this collection of players to a championship.
That’s fair! LeBron was gassed down the stretch of Game 7. He was loose defensively early—enough to repeatedly draw the ire of Jackson and Van Gundy—and there was a stretch of the second half where LeBron wasn’t even pretending to have the juice to move laterally on defense, and was pointing for switches on screens so early and so passively that Celtics ball-handlers were building up a head of steam and charging downhill with no hesitation whatsoever. As the game progressed and LeBron’s minutes stacked up, his jumper lost all its arc and turned into a laser, a tell-tale sign of a player’s legs getting weak. The Cavs would work to engineer a switch on the perimeter to get him a favorable matchup against Terry Rozier or Jayson Tatum, but LeBron no longer had the energy to bury those lighter defenders on the low block, and the Cavs had to abort any number of designed isolations because the Celtics were able to deny the pass with two defenders.
Of course, LeBron was still the engine of Cleveland’s success. He played 48 minutes; he scored efficiently; he set up his teammates, even after they spent the first half throwing up bricks; he gobbled up a game-high 15 defensive rebounds; he recovered from a bad turnover to stone Terry Rozier on a bonkers breakaway dunk attempt in the second half; he led all players on both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, buckets, free-throws, and tied for the game high in made triples. But it took an enormous, grueling effort, against a Celtics defense that makes almost no mistakes, and makes every opponent work for every inch, every time.
So that was the backdrop for LeBron’s final bucket of the night, which came at the very end of the 47th of his game-high 48 minutes of action, in his series-high 287th minute of the Eastern Conference finals, and NBA-high 742nd minute of these playoffs, and NBA-high 3,768th minute of the season. LeBron grabbed a defensive rebound off a Jaylen Brown miss and tore ass the other way, with just Marcus Morris to stop him:
Marcus Morris is a gigantic person, by any reasonable standard. He’s 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, and he fancies himself a LeBron stopper in no small part because he is large and strong and therefore theoretically better equipped to bang bodies with LeBron without turning into hamburger. Here his idea of “stopping” LeBron was to clamp onto LeBron’s back with both hands and tug him to the ground. Look at this:
And LeBron just muscled the ball on up there, like having a humongous man hanging off of his back was no more troublesome than a gust of warm air. I have absolutely no faith that LeBron’s heroics in this series would carry the Cavs past either of the teams out West, nor do I feel all that confident that LeBron could even muster another several games worth of this. He’s played 94 of 96 possible minutes over these last two games, and at several points in Game 7 he looked flat out exhausted. I can’t imagine how he summoned the energy to go coast to coast and score with a damn Morris twin hanging from his shoulders, but it was a fitting ending for the ridiculous, Herculean effort needed to even get to that point. Van Gundy overstated the magnitude of what LeBron accomplished in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but not by much.