Strong Second Half Helps Cavaliers Pull Off Game 7 Victory Against Celtics, Earn Fourth Straight Trip to Finals
With the Cleveland Cavaliers set to face the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston, it seemed in evitable they would lose the series and talks of LeBron James departure from Cleveland would begin. Leading up to this point, this was a series that featured zero fourth quarter lead changes, the home team winning by nine or more points in every game of the series, and a Celtics team that was 10-0 at home with home-court advantage going into it. Even the numbers for both teams when playing at home and on the road this season pointed to a Celtics victory.
Furthermore, the Cavaliers were without Kevin Love who suffered a concussion in Game 6 the other night, causing Cleveland to lose a big rebounding threat that they could desperately use against the likes of Aron Baynes and Al Horford. In his place to start? Jeff Green, a man who coming into this game was averaging 8.3 points per game in the playoffs coming off the bench this year for the Cavs. All signs pointed to Boston making their way to the NBA Finals, but LeBron James and the Cleveland supporting cast pulled through had other ideas.
Out of the gate, the Boston Celtics came out strong and put the pressure on the Cavaliers to make shots. Taking an early 11-4 lead, this seemed like a game Boston would control just as the home team had for the first six games. Eventually, Cleveland found their rhythm for a short while and was able to take their first lead of the game, 18-17 towards the end of the first quarter. However, Boston ended the quarter on a 9-0 run to end the first with a 26-18 lead in Game 7. For the Cavaliers, it was a quarter in which LeBron James had 12 of their first 18 points of the game and struggled to get the guys around him going, something the Celtics took advantage of. In the early goings of the second quarter, it was more of the same as the Celtics continued to assert their dominance over the Cavaliers. WIth 8:52 remaining in the second, a Marcus Morris three-pointer would give the Celtics a 12-point edge over the Cavs and it looked like another blowout was in the making for Boston on their home floor.
However, Cleveland hung tough and went on a 14-4 run which cut the Celtics lead down to two, a lead they would push back up to four going into the locker room for halftime up 43-39. For Cleveland, that was a win considering how poor of a half they had put up on the offensive end. The Cavs offense went 2-for-17 from three-point range in the first half and turned the ball over seven times which included five from LeBron James. Additionally, LeBron's defense lacked early on and allowed the Celtics to put up easy, wide open shots. At one point, he left Jaylen Brown open after a screen was set near James and involved no contact against him. James did not make an effort to chase his man and instead allowed Brown to shoot a wide open three in which he made. James was overally aggressive on offense as well in the early going which hurt his team. On several occasions, James settled for quick shots from mid-range on possessions that lacked ball movement, that is not going to win you a Game 7 playoff matchup on the road.
But James was not the only reason for the Cavaliers woes in the first half, the supporting cast had its issues as well. Players like JR Smith, Kyle Korver, and George Hill found themselves with open shots off passes from LeBron on numerous occasions and failed to make them. Additionally, the Celtics were dominating the glass on defense as they would frequently have four guys down low for the rebound while the Cavaliers had just one and four guys standing near the three-point line ready to run back on defense. They also did not double team Al Horford as much on defense which allowed him to score 14 points in the first half. If there was one bright spot in the first half for the Cavaliers, it was Jeff Green putting up nine points and four boards in place of Kevin Love. Meanwhile, LeBron already had 17 points and 10 rebounds to earn double-double for the game. Given the amount of issues the Cavaliers had on both ends of the ball, it was a wonder they were only down four to the Celtics.
But the Cavaliers seemed to come alive in the second half, playing a much better game on both ends of the court. Jeff Green hit a three-pointer with 4:56 to go in the third, giving the Cavs their first lead since they led 18-17 in the first quarter. It was part of a 9-0 run that gave the Cavaliers a 55-51 edge. During the run, a LeBron James turnover led to what looked to be an easy dunk for Terry Rozier. However, James hung with the play and flew in to make the block on Rozier, seeming to take any chance of momentum the Celtics hoped to grab. Boston would answer back anyways, going on a mini 5-0 run to tie the game up at 56 before James gave the Cavs a 59-56 lead heading into the fourth on a late three-pointer. The Cavaliers had a legitimate shot of pulling off a Game 7 victory against a team they struggled to hang with all series when they faced them on the road.
Right off the bat, Boston made two quick shots and a free throw to give themselves the lead and the first fourth quarter lead change of the series. As they had all season, the Celtics showed their resilience when faced with tough tasks. Despite their youth, they had shown all season they can hang with the big guys even without their big stars. After the Cavaliers responded to Boston's early attack, the momentum seemed to shift yet again when out of a timeout Jayson Tatum took flight over LeBron James for the dunk and then hit a three shortly after to give the Celtics a 72-71 lead. But this time, LeBron James and the Cavaliers proved to be too much and outscored Boston 15-8 over the final six minutes to take Game 7 by a final of 87-79.
For LeBron, this is his eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance and fourth consecutive with the Cavaliers. He has not lost a playoff series in the Eastern Conference since 2010 against the Boston Celtics, winning his 24th consecutive series against an Eastern Conference opponent with last night's victory. He finished the game just short of a triple-double with 35 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists. Jeff Green played a crucial part in the starting lineup as well, scoring a playoff-high 19 points in place of Kevin Love while going 7-for-14 from the field. Cleveland will face the winner of tonight's Western Conference Finals Game 7 matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets at 9:00 EST on TNT.
As for Boston, they will head into the offseason having overachieved this season given the fact their two superstars in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving were not with them for this playoff run. Hayward was injured minutes into the opening game of the season and Irving later on in the year, leaving the youth of the Celtics to try carrying this team down the stretch. They performed tremendously throughout the course of the season, but they came up short in the most crucial part of the series. Often times, the final win of the series is regarded as the most difficult to get likely because you realize how close you are to moving on or winning it all. This was a Boston team that had the opportunity to close out the Cavaliers twice and failed to do so.
One reason for this was their failure to hit shots from the free throw line. During Game 6, they missed a total of nine free throws in a game that ended up being decided by 10 points. While those nine points do not give them the lead, it still can potentially change the situation at the time they would have been made. Nonetheless, the Celtics were 14-for-19 last night having missed five free throws during the game. While no team is expected to make every shot from the stripe, missing them can be crucial upon reflection at the end of a game. Like the Cavaliers, the Celtics struggled from three-point range as well. They were a horrendous 7-for-39 from three-point range, but continued to let loose with a barrage of threes in the final minutes of the game in a two possession game.
Down three with just over three minutes to go, the Celtics rattled off five three-point attempts over the course of the next two minutes. A stretch of two minutes that featured just two more points by the Cavaliers to extend their lead to five. Instead of going for a high percentage shot close to the basket, they settled for attempting three-pointers with plenty of time remaining in the game. While Boston struggled to close out the Cavs or take advantage of their early struggles in Game 7, they still are a young team that is built for the future. It was a Celtics team that saw the emergence of a future star in Jayson Tatum this year who put up 24 points last night, the return of Hayward and Irving to the lineup next year, and a young nucleus overall. It is a team built for the future, a future that should find themselves back in this very spot next season, vying for a shot at the NBA Finals.
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