CLEVELAND - LeBron James pulled up a few steps outside the 3-point line, close enough to touch the Cleveland skyline outline on the court at Quicken Loans Arena. Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum had his arm in perfect defensive position, but it didn't matter.
You knew it was in. Of course, James drilled the shot. He pounded his chest three times with both arms and screamed. That was the defining shot in a 46-point performance that clinched a 109-99 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics on Friday night.
"The love of the game causes reactions like that," James said. "Understanding the situation and understanding the moment you're in. You can't really explain it unless you're in it."
That shot closed the door on Boston and set up a decisive Game 7 on Sunday to determine which team comes out of the East and goes to the NBA Finals. That gives James seven 40-point games in the 2018 NBA playoffs - yes, that's only this postseason run. That prompted the superlatives everyone uses in these situations every time this happens.
How do others try to explain what James is doing?
"Greatness, championship pedigree, giving it his all," Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. "We needed that, especially when Kevin (Love) went down. We had to play LeBron as many minutes as we had to."
That was everything Cleveland needed in an elimination game. Love left and did not return while being evaluated with a concussion, and his status for Game 7 is uncertain. Boston led 25-20 after the first quarter. James responded by playing 46 minutes and six seconds two nights after being asked whether fatigue was a factor after a loss in Game 5.
The value of those 40-point games can't be understated. James now has 26 playoff games with 40 or more points. The Cavs are 6-1 in these playoffs when James scores 40, with the lone loss coming in Game 2 of against Boston. James, however, proved that letting him get 40 and focusing on the help won't work in Game 7. George Hill (20), Jeff Green (14) and Larry Nance Jr. (10) combined for 44 points, a much-needed boost with Love stuck in the locker room.
James' teams are 18-8 when he scores 40 or more points, a winning percentage of .692. Before you look, that's better than the 26-12 record and .684 winning percentage the Bulls compiled in 38 career 40-point playoff games from Michael Jordan. Those are the constant comparisons James deals with, and as Celtics coach Brad Stevens predicted before Game 6, the superstar delivers.
"The amount of scrutiny that he deals with after a tremendous game is one of a kind," Stevens said. "Nobody else deals with that. Nobody else has what he has on his shoulders playing the game."
And it wasn't just how much he scored - James delivered at the critical times. He drained a 3-pointer for Cleveland's first lead as part of an 11-0 run in the second quarter. He closed the first half with an eight-point flurry for a 54-43 advantage at halftime. James had 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting at that point.
Whenever the Celtics threatened push the Cavs' lead to less than seven points in the fourth quarter, James would finish a possession with a layup, free throws or a putback. He just kept throwing daggers, including the back-to-back 3-pointers in the last two minutes and one final basket for his team to hit 109. James left to a round of cheers while the obligatory chants of "MVP! MVP!" tore through the stands.
For all the talk of James' future plans, it was another moment when he delivered in Cleveland. The nature of those 40-point games, however, has changed.
The Cavs finished 5-4 in the postseason when James dropped 40 or more points in his first stint with the franchise. In four years with Miami, James, alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, had just three 40-point playoff games. The Heat were 3-0 in those games. He added seven more in the last three playoff runs with Cleveland, and that amounted to a 4-3 record.
This playoff run has been different. The Cavs need these 40-point games. They wouldn't be here without them. They are winning when it happens, and James continues to deliver on another level we haven't seen, even from him.
"It's just something that you can't explain what he's doing night in and night out," Hill said. "It's something special."
When Indiana threatened to take a 2-0 lead in the first round, James dropped 46 points in Game 2. He hit a buzzer-beater as part of a 44-point performance against the Pacers in Game 5 and poured on 45 more points in Game 7. He put Toronto away early with 43 points in Game 2 in the second round.
The only loss came in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, when James scored 42 points with 12 assists and 10 rebounds in a 107-94 loss to the Celtics. James rectified that with a 46-point performance Friday, giving Cleveland a chance to eliminate Boston at TD Garden. The Celtics are 10-0 at home in the playoffs, but James averages 34.9 points per game and shoots 48.4 percent from the field in Game 7.
That sets up a situation where something has to give - and 40 more points might be required.
"We know it's a challenge," James said. "They are 10-0 on their home floor, and they have been very successful against at home, obviously.
"If you love challenges, then this is a great opportunity."
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