BOSTON - This was a last gasp. This was Joe Louis fighting Cesar Brion, Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks. This was Willie Mays with the Mets, the Rolling Stones recording "Dirty Work," Orson Welles doing "Transformers" movies. This was a team with a great legacy just managing to survive.
What the Cavaliers did against the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals was take an 87-79 win, a critical game in terms of how the world will remember this NBA season - not with a stunning upset by a group of mostly hitherto overlooked young Celtics, but with more of the same.
Cleveland will play in the NBA Finals, salvaging a year in which so little went right, getting back to the same stage to which they've ascended for, now, four straight years. The Cavs gave themselves one last chance at the NBA's big prize.
They did so because of LeBron James and, with due respect to the 19 points from Jeff Green, LeBron James alone. James had 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, making 12 of his 24 shots. This followed his 46 points in the Game 6 win, and his 44 in Game 4.
"He's had a lot of gaudy games," Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. "But I just think, Game 7 in Boston, all the circumstances that surround Boston, the history behind Boston, playing a team that's very well-coached, a good, young team that's undefeated in the playoffs at home. To come on the road where all the games have been lopsided, in a hostile environment, Game 7, Eastern Conference finals, this Game 7 and Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2016. Right there."
It was a good night for that kind of nostalgia. James, in the 2016 Finals, was something to behold. He was the same on this night. At the same time, his chat with reporters after the game provided a good reminder of just how strange a season this has been for James, who had called it five different seasons rolled in one, but added on Sunday, "It's now six seasons in one."
James played all 48 minutes, and as the games of this series ramped up in importance, the team's focus on James has gotten more intense. In the Cavs' last four games, James has been on the floor 91.3 percent of the time. To state the obvious, he has been needed.
"It was asked of me to play the whole game," James said. "I was just trying to figure out how I was going to get through, in timeouts, catch my breath. At halftime, I didn't come out and warm up. I spent my time trying to recalibrate, catch my wind again. That's what's been asked of me by this ball club."
That's just the issue. There was little coming out of the result on Sunday that suggests we'll be seeing Cleveland playing at this level much in the near future, simply because the Cavs will continue to ask that much out of James. Even with his effort, it was not a convincing win. This was not a game Cleveland won by the force of its talent, but one the Celtics lost because of fatigue, inexperience and general ineptitude.
The Celtics were 7-for-39 from the 3-point line. That's 17.9 percent. They coughed up an early 12-point lead. They had nine attempts in transition and made just one of them, and they were outscored 16-3 in fast-break points. Boston went just seven deep, and was so sapped by the game's late moments that, after taking a 72-71 lead with 6:04 to play in the game, the Celtics failed to make a shot in the next 5:30.
Terry Rozier was 2-for-14. Jaylen Brown was 5-for-18. Marcus Smart was 1-for-10. When you ride just seven players in a Game 7, you're in trouble if three of those seven go 8-for-42.
"It's one of those things that we felt like we had some good momentum going there, and then we had some great looks that just literally went in and out and that we missed," Celtics forward Al Horford said.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were supposed to have breathed new life into the team back at the trade deadline, when they acquired three 25-year-olds - Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Those three players combined for two points on 1-for-4 shooting in this game, with Hood affixed to the bench for the full 48 minutes. George Hill, the other new Cavalier, was 2-for-6 with six points.
This group is not the team of the future. The Cavaliers' Game 7 starters, on average, are 31 years old. Sixth man Kyle Korver is 37. Their opponent's starting five, meanwhile, had an average age of 25.4 years. This is most certainly the team of the recent past, even as it is a fixture in the Finals.
James is still in Cleveland, and on this night, in this series, that proved to be enough. Of all the impressive stretches in his career, what James did in the final 12 minutes of this game ranks near the top. He had six points in the first five minutes of the quarter, each one in direct response to a Celtics score - all three shots he made came within 24 seconds of a Boston basket.
When the game slogged to a near-halt during the final 2:45 of the game, it was James who posted six straight points to turn a tight, four-point lead to an impossible-to-overcome 10 points.
The pertinent question for the Cavaliers is whether they can possibly continue to expect so much from James, and whether he will have any interest in playing for a franchise that requires nightly stardom from him in order to succeed. Cleveland lost its secondary star - point guard Kyrie Irving - last summer and is in no position to replace him.
James is heading into free agency a month from Friday, and for him, two things should be clear coming out of this series: First, it's unlikely that there is immediate help coming to this franchise; and, second, even if it does come, it's not going to match what Boston and other budding teams in the East (Philadelphia, and, perhaps, Milwaukee) will have on hand in the next few years.
When it comes to sizing up this season, James did not sound like a man who'd just punched his ticket to the Finals. He was more philosophical.
"It's been a roller-coaster," he said. "It's been good, it's been bad. It's been roses, it's been thorns in the roses. It's been anything you could have asked for. It's been one of the most challenging seasons I've had.
"But... right before the trade deadline, I kind of reset. I did not know if we were going to make trades or not, and I just kind of reset my mindset and said, 'OK, this is the season and I am going to try to make the most of it.' That's what's gotten me to this point."
And that's what's gotten the Cavs to this point - James resigning himself nearly four months ago to a season of heavy lifting.
He's still lifting. James was outstanding, again, on Sunday night and because of it, the Cavs are going back to the Finals - this year, at least.
But this series, this game, was a final gasp for the Cavs as we know them. James might sign back in Cleveland this summer, or he might pack up and head West. Either way, even in victory, there is a sense here that something has shifted, that James' Cavaliers likely won't be the same again.
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