4 takeaways from the Celtics’ inability to close out the Cavaliers in Game 6

"It’s gonna be tough."

Jayson Tatum LeBron James
LeBron James reacts after a basket in the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics. –Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

They say they’re the best two words in sports: Game 7.

Cleveland staved off elimination on its home floor Friday night, thanks to an incredible performance from LeBron James and, perhaps more importantly, his supporting cast. James, who played in all but two minutes of the game, scored 46 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and dished nine assists.

“It just seems like every time his back is against the wall . . . he steps up,” former Celtics forward Paul Pierce told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt after the game. “I feel like ever since Game 6 of the 2012 playoffs in Boston, when he put on that virtuoso performance, he hasn’t looked back from then.”

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Despite avoiding their kryptonite from Games 3 and 4 — getting punched in the mouth during the first quarter — the Celtics were outscored, 34-18, in the second quarter. The Cavaliers entered halftime with a 54-43 lead, and although they had their chances, the Celtics never closed the gap.

“I was proud of the way we fought back,” coach Brad Stevens said, following his team’s 109-99 loss. “We had a chance there to cut it to four on a shot. It didn’t quite go down, but this group is resilient. We’ll be ready to go on Sunday.”

Here’s what we learned from Game 6:

LeBron James isn’t going down without a fight.

James played the first 35 minutes of the game without a rest.

After rumblings that he “looked tired” during Game 5, the 33-year-old proved he had enough left in the tank for at least Game 6. James logged 46 minutes, bringing his postseason total to a league-high 695. Both teams have just a day of rest — which James said will be used for “around-the-clock” treatment — before Game 7.

Between now and Sunday, the three-time NBA champion will also be recovering from a sore lower right leg. With eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, teammate Larry Nance Jr. went up to block a shot attempt from Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum and fell onto James’s shin on his way down.

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“I felt some pain throughout my entire right side of my ankle into my leg,” James said. “I was just hoping for the best, obviously, because I’ve seen so many different injuries, and watching basketball with that type of injury, someone falls into one’s leg standing straight up. Luckily, I was able to finish the game.”

James said after the game it would require a “real, real, real, really bad injury” for him to consider leaving the floor.

Following the incident, he scored 12 points, including back-to-back three-pointers to seal Cleveland’s victory. In each of his last seven elimination games, James has had either a triple-double or a 40-point game. Through all 21 elimination games of his career, he’s averaged 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists.

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“I just try to put myself in the best possible shape each and every year to be able to go for the long haul,” James said. “Obviously, getting a couple of minutes [of rest] per quarter would be great, but that’s not what our team is built on right now. Our team is built on me being out on the floor to be able to make plays not only for myself but to make plays for others.”

The Cavaliers’ lineup is in limbo.

The Cavs were without Kevin Love for the majority of the game.

Love and Tatum inadvertently bumped heads in an off-the-ball collision during the first quarter. Both players were visibly shaken up, as Love fell to the floor. He was helped off the court and escorted to the locker room for further evaluation. The Cavaliers later ruled him out for the remainder of the contest.

“I didn’t see him coming,” said Tatum, who stayed in the game and played 39 minutes. “It was bad. I have a knot on the back of my head, but I should be all right. I wish the best for Kevin Love because he’s a great player.”

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Stevens said the Celtics will continue to monitor Tatum’s status over the next day to ensure he is fine. The Cavaliers have not placed Love in concussion protocol, but he is listed as questionable for Game 7. Losing Love would be a blow for Cleveland on the road. Although his replacement, Jeff Green, put up 14 points Friday night, the Cavs’ role players have struggled to find an offensive groove at the TD Garden.

But coach Tyronn Lue was impressed with how his team responded in Game 6 and expects a similar performance, should Love be sidelined in Game 7.

“I think when you lose an All-Star like Kevin — our second go-to guy, a pivotal part of what we try to do — you help your brother up and that’s what they did,” Lue said. “Kevin left the game. He didn’t come back, and guys got together and they played. They played for Kevin. They played for each other and were able to get the win.”

Two stats plagued the Celtics’ offense.

Free throws: 11 of 20

Al Horford: Six points

Al Horford converted on just two of eight shot attempts and didn’t make his first basket until the third quarter Friday. He finished with four assists, six points, and nine rebounds. Game 6 was just the second time Horford has been limited to single-digit scoring this postseason.

“If you were watching the game, you’d know I was getting doubled as soon as I caught the ball,” Horford said. “I didn’t really have one-on-one position, so they did a good job doubling me and making it hard.”

Stevens noted Horford’s shot attempts are likely going to be down if the Cavaliers are doubling him because he’s passing more frequently as a result of the coverage. He said the question at hand is whether the Celtics went to Horford enough.

“When we review it, we’ll look at it and figure out if we need to do more,” he said.

The Cavaliers also dominated the offensive glass, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds.

“I definitely need to do a better job with that,” Horford said. “There were a couple times I fell asleep there and Nance got behind me. I’ll be better Sunday.”

There’s a lot of hype surrounding Game 7.

The Celtics are returning to their parquet floor Sunday night with hopes of defending their undefeated record at home and advancing to the NBA Finals.

“It’s gonna be tough,” Cavs point guard George Hill said. “No team has won there in these playoffs so far. We’ve got to try to be the first.”

Hill — who has been silenced in Boston, scoring a combined 15 points in Games 1, 2, and 5 at the TD Garden — notched 20 points in Game 6 alone. The Celtics can withstand a single-man effort from James. They did so in Game 2, weathering his 42-point triple-double. They just can’t let his supporting cast get into a rhythm, too.

“We know LeBron is different than a lot of other guys, but we’ve got to get the job done,” guard Terry Rozier said.

James said he doesn’t put “too much added pressure” on himself for Game 7s.

“I just go out and play my game,” he said. “It’s just basketball for me. I know what I’m capable of doing.”

But just like James, the Celtics aren’t going to go down without a fight, either.

“It’s not going to be pretty,” guard Marcus Smart said. “You got to be able to get down and get dirty . . . We’ve gotta be willing to come out of it with our noses bloody, with ours mouths bloody. We’ve gotta be ready for a fight.”

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