BOSTON – The door to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ locker room was pinned open, the hallway air doing little to cool a tight space muggy from shower steam mixing with the heat of the dozens of bodies crammed in it. In a corner sat LeBron James, his feet in an ice bucket and two oversized ice bags taped to his knees. His reaction to Sunday’s 87-79 Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics, to punching his ticket to his eighth straight NBA Finals was … underwhelming. He FaceTimed with a friend. He flipped through pages of a book. He joked with local reporters.
A few feet away, George Hill dressed slowly. After 666 regular-season games — and 98 more in the playoffs — Hill is headed to his first Finals. “It kind of brought tears to my eyes,” Hill said. His 20 points in Game 6 helped force a Game 7. James’ 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists powered the Cavs through on Sunday night.
“LeBron,” Hill said, “being LeBron.”
A few stalls down, Jeff Green beamed. Once a touted prospect, Green had evolved into a journeyman in recent years, ping-ponging between four teams in the last three seasons. He signed a one-year, $2.1 million deal with Cleveland in July, stepped in for an injured Kevin Love in Game 6 and scored 19 points starting in Love’s place in Game 7. The soft-spoken Green was one of the Cavs’ most vocal players in huddles, and his floor spacing, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “was huge the last few games.”
Six years ago, Green was on a table, undergoing open-heart surgery. “January 9, 2012,” Green said. Today, he’s headed to his first Finals.
“I almost lost it all,” Green said. “And now to sit here in front of you guys, to talk about the NBA Finals, and playing in it, I’ve been truly blessed to be able to step foot on this court and play this game.”
All around James, a celebration. Kyle Korver played 13 seasons without a Finals appearance. He’s headed to his second straight. “This season has been something else,” Korver said. J.R. Smith was effectively dumped on Cleveland in 2015. “Four in a row,” Smith said. “That’s hard to believe.” Kendrick Perkins was cut by the Cavs in the preseason. He could have taken a six-figure job on Cleveland’s coaching staff. Instead, he moved 60 miles down the road, to Canton, and joined the G League’s Canton Charge, collecting around $30,000 for 27 games of work. He signed back with Cleveland before the last game of the season, and the ex-Celtics bruiser will get a shot at a second championship.
As Perkins walked past James’ locker, he offered a bottle of shower gel.
“I’m good. I’ve got some,” James said.
“You sure?” Perkins replied. “Whatever you want, whatever you need.”
The Cavaliers are headed to the Finals, again, and another awe-inspiring performance from James has catapulted them there. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has witnessed countless brilliant James efforts. How does this one stack up? “The best,” Lue said. Pressed, Lue declared the only comparable to be 2016’s championship clinching Game 7 against Golden State.
“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,” Lue said. “To come on the road where all the games have been lopsided, both home teams have pretty much been in great shape at home, and to come here in a hostile environment … Game 7, Eastern Conference finals, this and Game 7 of the Finals in 2016, right there.”
The season on the line, and everyone on Boston’s bench understood: Against James, you can’t keep it close. The Celtics ran to an early 12-point lead, but a handful of missed opportunities in the second quarter let the Cavs cut it to four at the half. “We were in really good shape,” Stevens said. “We just couldn’t quite extend the lead.”
That lead vanished in the third quarter, when cold shooting limited the Celtics to 13 points. From there, James took over. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, connecting on four of his six shots, tacking on four free throws while handing out four assists. Rarely has Boston believed it was playing poor defense against James. His offense was just better.
“Our goal going into the series was to make him exert as much energy as humanly possible and try to be as good as we can on everybody else, who are good players,” Stevens said. “For the most part, I thought we were pretty good at that. Multiple games now in TD Garden, held them under 100, three games in the 80s — but he still scored 35. It’s a joke.”
Facing reporters on a dais, James wasn’t laughing. Too tired maybe. “I’ve said this is one of the most challenging seasons I’ve had,” James said. After playing James 46 minutes in Game 6, Lue declared he wouldn’t play him 48 in Game 7. “But if I have to, I will,” Lue joked before the game. He did. Late in the second quarter, with James picking up his second foul, Lue appeared to send Cedi Osman to check in for him. James, reminding Lue it was just his second, waved him off.
So many successful playoff runs for James, each with its own story, but this one felt different. His co-star (Kyrie Irving) traded before the season, his roster shaken up at the trade deadline, and James, 33, seemed to will this team back to the Finals. He played in all 82 games, led the NBA in minutes for the second straight season, and finished the conference playoffs averaging a tick over 41 minutes per game.
“It’s what’s been asked of me, and I have to just be able to try and figure it out,” James said. “It was asked of me tonight to play the whole game, and I just tried to figure out how I could get through it.”
It wasn’t easy. At halftime, James skipped warmups. “That was my time to recalibrate and catch my wind again,” James said. In the fourth quarter, Lue called back-to-back timeouts to try and steal James an extra minute of rest. With the Cavs up seven with just over a minute, James’ stamina was showcased again, when, with Marcus Morris pulling him down by the shoulders, James powered up a layup … that Jaylen Brown goaltended … that still went in.
“The great quote from the great Doc Rivers is you always want to go into the Game 7 with the best player, and we have the best player on our team going into a Game 7,” Lue said. “I like our chances. And he delivered again.”
Stacking James up against Michael Jordan is goofy, if for no other reason than this: James isn’t done. He’s headed to his ninth Finals, as an underdog again, and whether it’s Golden State or Houston, the Cavs will be called fodder. “For some reason, negative press on the Cavs sells,” Lue said. But Cleveland has glommed on to the constant criticism of James’ supporting cast — “Coach Lue, he feeds off of it,” James said. “Some of our teammates kind of feed off of it, on just people counting us out and counting them out personally.” — and the Cavs know they will go into a series against either opponent with the best player on the floor.
“At the end of the day, the game is won between the lines,” James said. “We have an opportunity to play for a championship. That’s all that matters.”
Indeed, and never has that opportunity seemed so improbable. James joked late in the season that the Cavs’ season was like five rolled into one. “It’s now six,” James said. “I guess this is now the last chapter for our team this season.” On to Houston, on to Golden State, and doubt James at your own risk. He has taken his game to another level, inspiring teammates along the way.
“You want to be there for him,” Green said. “You want to be in the trenches, in the battle, helping him achieve the ultimate goal. For me, it’s a no-brainer to go out there and give it all I have.”
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