CLEVELAND — LeBron James thumped his chest, flexed his biceps, and cut loose a full-throated roar.
One more time Friday night, perhaps one last time, an adoring audience of 20,562 returned the love.
If the Cavaliers’ shamrock beatdown proves an Irish wake and James’ roof-lifting stepback 3-pointer in the final minutes of a season-saving 109-99 win over the Celtics endures as our final image of him in Cleveland, how fitting it was.
In what might have been the free-agent-to-be favorite son’s home farewell, James only added to his outsized legend, scoring 46 points to send these Eastern Conference finals to a deciding seventh game.
LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts after a basket in the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics during Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
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What did Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue see from James?
“Greatness,” Lue replied.
There was nothing more to be said.
With the air conditioning cranked to full blast in a noticeably brisk Quicken Loans arena to keep James from cramping, the man carrying the weight of the basketball world atop his shoulders again made the extraordinary feel ordinary. He played all but two minutes, finishing one assist shy of a triple double.
Tired? Sure. The 33-year-old James will play his 100th game of the season Sunday in Boston and leads the league in postseason minutes played. But, hey, there’s time for rest in his next life. “Until we’re dead in our grave,” Lue said, “it’s not over.” And so there James was one possession in the third quarter scoring in transition, then chasing down Terry Rozier to impolitely redirect his seeming open layup into the stands.
“That guy,” Cleveland guard George Hill said, “amazes me.”
What’s next? No idea.
If Cleveland receives a classic James performance and merely a D-plus showing from his wingmen — a crew that might be absent Kevin Love after the all-star left the game with an apparent concussion — I’ll take Cleveland in Game 7.
I just have no idea if the other Cavs can deliver a passing grade in Boston.
The same franchise that once took names anytime, anywhere this time of year now curls up like a dog in a thunderstorm every time it leaves home.
And nowhere does Cleveland sink to the occasion more than in Boston, where, to the contrary, the team from Beantown is 10-0 this postseason.
Every game there has turned into a sequel of Honey I Shrunk the Cavs , the veteran visitors unexplainably overmatched by the moment. Take J.R. Smith and Hill, who have played 125 and 97 postseason games, respectively. In Cleveland’s three no-shows at TD Garden, Smith and Hill are 7 for 35 with a total of 21 points.
It is 10 p.m. in Game 7. Do you know where your starting backcourt is?
Really, Friday told us nothing we didn’t already know: James is great and role players perform well at home.
It was the same old story, with a new twist. This time, there was no fast start. Just a slow slog. A CliffsNotes version of the first quarter: Smith clanked a jumper off the side of the backboard, Love clunked heads with Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown (15 points) almost outscored Cleveland by himself as Boston opened a 25-20 lead.
Then James thundered to life, and got help everywhere, most notably from Hill (20 points) and reserves Jeff Green (14 points) and Larry Nance, Jr. (10).
Now, they must collectively deliver when it matters most, on the road, and there is no indication that will happen.
Yet when you have James, all you want is an opportunity. If we’ve said it once, we’ll say it another five times. One for every win by James the past five times his team has played a Game 7.
No matter what your eyes tell you, only the poor man makes a habit of betting against James.
The last time James faced an elimination game in Game 6 of a conference final series against Boston? He scored 45 points to lead the Heat to a 98-79 win and Miami went on to win the title.
The last time he faced a Game 7? That was in the first round a few weeks ago. James scored 45 points to lead Cleveland past the Pacers.
If anyone can lift these Cavs to a fourth straight finals trip, it is James, statistically the greatest player ever in elimination games and subjectively simply the greatest player ever.
If not, and Friday was his last night in the home Cleveland threads, how magnificent it was.
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