Had the Celtics been able to end the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, there would have been a sweet symmetry to the victory.
The Celtics season began, way back on Oct. 17, at Quicken Loans Arena.
Some among us thought it ended there that same night.
Gordon Hayward, the Celtics’ All-Star offseason acquisition, severely injured his ankle and leg and . . . well, you know, even though ABC’s broadcasters racing to praise what LeBron James has overcome (swapping out one set of mediocre teammates for another?) seem to forget:
Hayward’s injury suggested Celtics season was lost before it could get to halftime on the night it began.
Little did we know then that Brad Stevens’s team, emboldened and enhanced by the emergence of rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year swingman Jaylen Brown but not only by them, would survive, thrive, and arrive, even after another barrier, another season-ending injury to another genuine star, Kyrie Irving.
They had a chance to achieve that symmetry Friday night. That wasn’t their only golden chance. They were positioned to eliminate the Cavaliers in their own building, send off James into his next tone-deaf free-agency extravaganza, in front of a crowd that requires constant visual and audio cues from the in-game presentation, which feels like being trapped in video game in the Midwestern region of hell.
They had a chance to deliver some karma, some silence, and maybe even a little justice.
And they might have done it, too, if that meddling Cav hadn’t gotten in the way.
James scored 46 points in 46 minutes, collected 11 rebounds, dished out 9 assists, and got enough help from enough of his erratic teammates to defeat the Celtics, 109-99, in Game 6. George Hill scored 20 points for the Cavs, while Jeff Green, whom I would have previously believed could only help beat the Celtics in a playoff game if he were on their roster, had 14.
The Celtics had their chances to achieve that symmetry. For the first time in this series, they played well in the first quarter on the road, taking a 25-20 lead after the first quarter behind Brown’s 15 points.
Turns out that was just a delay before things went haywire. The second quarter brought too many ill-advised shots, especially by guys named Marcus, matched with a team-wise casual regard for retaining possession of the ball or boxing out.
Al Horford, who had a brutal all-around game, did not score in the first half. Tatum had just 2 points. Perhaps he was affected by a first-quarter head-to-head collision with the Cavs’ Kevin Love, who did not return after giving Celtics fans a flashback to the Adrian Dantley/Vinnie Johnson head-on crash in the 1987 East finals.
James hit a 3-pointer to give the Cavs a 34-33 lead midway through the second quarter. They would never relinquish it again, ripping off a 20-3 run to seize command heading into halftime. From that point, the game took on the feel of Game 4, when the Celtics fell behind early, resiliently chipped away, but were thwarted by James (and their inability keep the Cavs off the offensive boards or to make enough free throws — they missed 9 of 20) whenever the deficit dipped into single digits.
Somehow, the Celtics did have a chance to cut the lead to 4 with 4 minutes, 3 seconds left when Marcus Smart ripped the ball away from James with the Celtics down, 97-90. Brown ended up with the ball — and an open-look from 3 — but the shot ricocheted away.
James soon extinguished all hope, drilling back-to-back 3s near the 2-minute mark to put the final flourishes on his latest masterpiece. The Celtics had their chances to steal the win and seal the series. But in the end, they all were laments.
As they head back to Boston for Sunday’s Game 7, there’s no symmetry to be found, just a pattern that they must hope holds. No road team has won in the six games in this series. And the Celtics are 10-0 at home in the playoffs, with three victories over the Cavs at TD Garden by an average margin of 17 points.
They can do this. I believe they will. But they must overcome the player I believe to be the best in NBA history. (Yes, that again, briefly.) James’s performance Friday night was both exceptional and his normal, and that’s what’s scary.
It wasn’t quite the equal of his iconic 45-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 6 of the 2012 East Finals at the Garden that effectively ended the New Big Three era. But it’s as close as he’s come. And he’s got one more game to surpass it. Did I mention he’s won his last five Game 7s?
The Celtics must overcome James, who is playing like a one-man amalgam of The Avengers. But so often he’s a one-man team, and that’s not going to be enough. If the Celtics can extend the pattern and play the way they have at home previously in this series, they can turn a superhero to dust.
That feat would be delivered with a different sort of symmetry, too. James hasn’t missed the NBA Finals since his Cavs lost to the Celtics in the East Finals in 2010. It’s time for a new generation of Celtics to take back what he seized from their predecessors. It’s time, and there is no better place.