If you thought the Cavs were completely screwed when, down by four points and looking disjointed against an unflustered Celtics defense, they lost Kevin Love to a scary-looking head injury, man you were not alone. Love’s mostly been crap in this series—he’s producing 48 percent true shooting on 26.5 percent usage, and an alarming minus-7.4 net rating—but only a googly-eyed anthropomorphic dog serenely drinking coffee in a burning home would look at Jeff Green coming in to play Kevin Love’s minutes in an elimination game and say “this is fine.”
It worked! Green played 31 minutes off the bench and finished with a respectable 14 points, and seemed to trigger Cleveland’s ferocious second-quarter run with a soaring baseline alley-oop and then a mighty and-one dunk over Aron Baynes. The Cavs can’t use Green as a deadly pick-and-pop weapon, a la Kevin Love, but they did cut him loose here and there to operate with his back to the basket, or in isolations, and though those possessions were a little stiff, and two of them ended in turnovers, they also gave the Cavs something they could do that didn’t require a lot of effort from LeBron. On a night when LeBron played 46 minutes, that’s not nothing.
And in an extremely un-Jeff Green plot twist, he twice rotated into the deep paint to swat away point-blank looks from driving Celtics players, including a driving dunk attempt from Terry Rozier. As insane and unlikely as this might seem, the Cavs would not even have made it to Game 7 if not for an impressive, clutch two-way performance from Jeff friggin’ Green. Incidentally, if the thought of Green taking on a portion of playmaking duties as a teammate of LeBron James in a road Game 7 makes you cackle wildly and/or vomit, that should give you a pretty good idea of why LeBron is expected to test free agency this summer.
Green wasn’t the only role player who came up huge for the Cavs. Kyle Korver spent his night wrestling with Jaylen Brown and knocked down a couple big threes; George Hill had easily his best game of the series, tallying an efficient 20 points on 12 shots; and Larry Nance Jr. hit all five of his shots and was incredibly energetic defensively, even if he sometimes looks like a 250-pound pinball ricocheting wildly around the interior.
But what will be remembered from this game was another signature performance from LeBron James. By now you’ve seen so many beefy stat lines from LeBron that his 46-11-9 with 3 steals and just 3 turnovers won’t even register as anything special, but it was a hell of a game, in a desperate situation:
Wild as it may seem, there’s a non-zero chance LeBron has now played his final home game as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The final year of his contract is a player option—albeit one worth more than $35 million—and every piece of speculation about his next contract takes for granted that he will head into free agency this summer, and not next. And then there’s this: the Celtics are 10-0 at home in these playoffs, with an average margin of victory of 11.5 points. The Celtics are early, narrow favorites in Game 7. And there’s a very good chance the Cavs will be playing without Kevin Love.
About Love: he’s had a bit of a history of brain injuries. He missed a game in the 2016 Finals due to violent head contact, and he went through the NBA’s concussion protocol earlier this season, after getting smashed in the face by Jordan Mickey on March 27. Love missed exactly one game, and it was the second-leg of a back-to-back, played on March 28. But the NBA’s concussion protocol requires that a player “complete a series of steps to confirm that he’s healthy enough for competition,” and by the NBA’s own description that process is expected to “take at least several days, if not weeks.”
You can understand, then, why the Cavaliers have thus far kept Love out of the concussion protocol—once he’s in, he is all but ruled out for Game 7. Per Cleveland.com:
The Cavs are saying he has not been placed in the protocol — which would require he pass a series of extensive tests to be able to play in Game 7 — because his symptoms did not trigger immediate entry into the protocol program.
It’s hard to imagine how symptoms of a head-to-head collision could force a player out of a game and not trigger immediate entry into the protocol program, but either way, Love is considered questionable for Game 7. And while the Jeff Green gambit might’ve worked at home, in front of a boisterous home crowd and against a team that is now 1-7 in road games during these playoffs, breaking it out in Boston, in a Game 7, will be a whole different thing.
So the Cavs will have their hands full in Game 7. LeBron was incredible Friday night, but he also played the most minutes he’s played in a playoff game this year, and more minutes than he played in all but one game during this regular season. The series seems to have tightened—the Celtics defense seemed more ready for Cleveland’s offense in Game 6 than it did in either of Games 3 and 4, and the Celtics have already utterly crushed Cleveland’s offense in three games in Boston, to the tune of just 87 points per game. The Cavs needed a lot to go their way in Game 6, and got most of it, and still needed a pair of ridiculous treys from LeBron to seal up the victory down the stretch. With the burden he’s carried these playoffs, how could anyone reasonably expect him to pull those kinds of heroics again in Game 7.
But that’s for later. For now, let’s savor the sight of 33-year-old LeBron, in his 45th and 46th minutes of action, dropping in a pair of clutch step-back threes in the mug of young Jayson Tatum, to seal a crucial victory and stave off elimination in front of a euphoric Cleveland home crowd. The sequence capped LeBron’s third 40-point game of this series, and seventh of these playoffs. He battered and softened the Celtics defense with 25 first half points, coming to life when it seemed like the Celtics were poised to open up a big lead, and he did it largely while surrounded by backups. And when the Celtics made a late push to claw their way back, he buried them with a pair of highlight buckets of the highest degree of difficulty. If that winds up being his last home game as a Cavalier, it was a hell of a finale.