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LeBron’s Legend Didn’t Need Reinforcing, But He Did It Anyway

When you’re already arguably the greatest player in NBA history, it’s tough to find new ways to add to your legend — but LeBron James somehow managed that feat Friday night, as his Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics 109-99 to force a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals. In a do-or-die contest, all James did was score 46 points, snag 11 boards and hand out 9 assists, padding his numbers as the NBA’s all-time postseason leader in points per game when facing elimination (according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group):

LeBron doesn’t go quietly

Most points per game in NBA history when facing elimination*

Rk Player Games Points/G
1 LeBron James 22 34.1
2 Michael Jordan 13 31.3
3 Kyrie Irving 5 31.2
4 Wilt Chamberlain 23 31.1

* Among players with a minimum of five such games

Source: ESPN Stats & Information

There’s a reason why James has made seven consecutive NBA Finals, with an eighth appearance potentially awaiting the result of Sunday’s Game 7.1 He makes life extraordinarily hard for opponents when they’re trying to close out his teams. Even after seeming to run out of gas late in Game 5, James showed few signs of fatigue on Friday, logging 46 minutes and saving some of his best plays for the fourth quarter (even after pulling up limping with an apparent ankle injury at one point).

James got a little bit of help, in the form of George Hill (20 points on 58 percent shooting) and a bench that outscored Boston’s reserves 36-23, even as three of Cleveland’s other starters — Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and JR Smith — combined for only seven total points. (Love exited with a concussion just five minutes into the game, and is questionable to play on Sunday.) But down the stretch, it was all LeBron: He had an astonishing usage rate of 48.8 percent in the fourth quarter. Although James carrying an undermanned squad to the Finals is nothing new, watching it play out in real time seldom ceases to amaze.

Meanwhile, the Celtics dug a hole for themselves on the scoreboard in the second quarter, following a nice start powered by an aggressive Jaylen Brown. They eventually mounted a late charge — but one that could never quite overcome LeBron’s heroics. After a star-making 24-point performance in Game 5, Jayson Tatum played more like a rookie in Game 6, and Boston’s usually staunch defense allowed an astronomical 120.3 points per 100 possessions during the second half. Even granting that Boston’s defense tends to be much, much worse on the road than at home, Brad Stevens has some things to iron out ahead of Game 7.

Either way, Friday’s result helped extend one of the oddest series in playoff history, in terms of home-road splits. Between Cleveland and Boston, the home team has won each of the first six games in this East final, by an average margin of 16.7 points per contest. I know home-court advantage means a lot in the NBA playoffs… but this has been ridiculous. Since the postseason expanded to 16 teams in 1984, only one other seven-game series saw the home team win each game by a bigger margin: The 2008 clash between the Spurs and (New Orleans) Hornets, where the home team won the first six games by an average of 18.2 points.

In that series, the Spurs broke the stalemate with a road victory in Game 7, so we’ll see if LeBron and the Cavs can overcome the Celtics’ home court magic to do the same. All that hinges on that outcome is an entire era of NBA history, LeBron’s future in Cleveland, one of the great playoff home-court performances ever and a potential passing of the torch to the next generation of Eastern Conference stars. (You know — no big deal.) And given the way this series has played out so far, nothing on Sunday should come as a surprise to us, no matter who comes out on top.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The only players in NBA history who made more Finals than that in a row are all Red Auerbach-era Celtics: Bill Russell (10), Tommy Heinsohn (9) and Sam Jones (9), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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