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Of Course LeBron Would Own Game 6

The King always takes it to another level in elimination games and the Celtics have struggled on the road—but the inevitability of his dominance didn’t make James’s performance any less awe-inspiring

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Six Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Betting on sports is hard, and I’d advise against it. There’s a reason why all those shiny casinos exist out in the Nevada desert and why so many corporations are excited about the Supreme Court’s recent decision on sports gambling: The people who take the bets tend to do a lot better for themselves than the people who make the bets. At various points during my career, I’ve been asked by different employers to do group posts with colleagues and predict winners for games/series/awards and such. I don’t know my lifetime record, but I’m certain it’s not good. I get a lot of them wrong—something that invariably prompts comment-section critics to take cracks at me for covering sports without being able to forecast the results. I always find that strange. If I could predict outcomes, I wouldn’t write about sports for a living—I’d be on an island somewhere with my feet in the sand and a drink in my hand, and that drink would have at least one umbrella in it, and probably two.

So I don’t bet on sports. Haven’t since stupid Luis Gonzalez hit a stupid bloop single with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of Game 7 to give the stupid Arizona Diamondbacks a World Series championship back in 2001. (I’m totally over it.) But … if there was ever a moment when I was tempted to bet on sports again, just one time, it was Friday night’s Eastern Conference Game 6 between the Cavaliers and Celtics in Cleveland. Any good gambler will tell you there’s no such thing as a lock. Which is true. Except for this Game 6. That thing was a total lock.

LeBron James is the King of Elimination Games. He went into Game 6 averaging cartoonish numbers in those scenarios: 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists with a 57.6 true shooting percentage. (On the points per game front, that’s tops all time ahead of Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, who are second and third respectively in that category.) Not to mention that the Celtics have been really good at home during these playoffs and really awful on the road. Entering Friday night, the Celtics had a 107.7 offensive rating at TD Garden and a 96.6 offensive rating anywhere else. Bad news for the Celtics: Cleveland’s arena qualifies as “anywhere else.” Also, James went into the game having won 10 of his last 13 elimination games since 2012.

Make that 11 of the last 14. James and the Cavs beat the Celtics, 109-99, to force Game 7 in Boston on Sunday. That, despite the fact that Kevin Love collided with Jayson Tatum early, went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion, and did not return. LeBron and the Cavs also overcame a late fourth-quarter push by the Celtics, who shot 51.4 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from 3 in the game and still lost. The Cavs got 20 points from George Hill and 14 more from Jeff Green, but it was LeBron’s night. It was always going to be LeBron’s night. James had another eye-popping line: 46 points (including 5-of-7 from 3-point range), 11 rebounds, nine assists, three steals, and one block. It was the seventh time he’s scored 40 or more points this postseason. That’s more 40-point performances in one playoffs than a lot of superstars have had in their careers.

As James said earlier in the series, you can’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to do. On Friday evening, he didn’t want to go home for the summer. James was a monster and stomped on the Celtics almost from tipoff. In the first half, he passed Karl Malone for sixth all time in playoff rebounds (after passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most field goals in postseason history earlier in the series). He also hit some big 3s and made sure to get his teammates involved, including a beautiful alley-oop he launched from Akron. When you can make Jeff Green look that good, you really are the King.

During one classic LeBron sequence in the third quarter, James scored on a layup, then raced the length of the court to record another signature chase-down block, this time on poor, unsuspecting Terry Rozier. Then, to cap off the game late in the fourth quarter, LeBron nailed two silly side-step 3s in Jaylen Brown’s face. As a wiser man than me pointed out, James was “not here for the bullshit.”

“It feels good just to play for another game,” James told ESPN afterward. “Like I’ve always said, ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports.”

So much for the narrative about James trying to save energy so he wouldn’t run out of gas. The man went full throttle in Game 6 and motored his way to 46 minutes (despite banging up his shin in the fourth quarter). As LeBron so eloquently put it on Tuesday, “That tracking shit can kiss my ass.” James led the league in minutes during the regular season and played in all 82 games. He leads the playoffs in minutes, too. He’s 33 years old. The last time he played that many minutes, he was 26. If fatigue is a factor, right now he’s doing his best to ignore it on behalf of the Cavs—and much to the chagrin of the Celtics, who must figure out a way to stop him in Game 7.

The last time LeBron didn’t reach the NBA Finals, the Lakers beat Boston. That was eight years ago—so long ago that Kobe was still good at basketball and was named Finals MVP; now he’s just an Oscar winner and makes videos that inspire young guys playing for his old enemies. Point is, that might as well be another lifetime. Since then, James has gone to seven straight NBA Finals and won three. He’s also been named Finals MVP three times during that stretch. James owns post–Memorial Day basketball, and it’s hard to imagine the Finals without him.

Whatever happens on Sunday night, the Celtics have had an amazing season, and they’re positioned to give the Eastern Conference fits for the foreseeable future. They also managed to put James in a 2-0 hole in an Eastern Conference playoff series for the first time in a decade. That’s no small feat. It should also be noted that the Celtics have never lost a playoff series in their history after winning the first two games, though that fact isn’t worth much when you think about it. If the Celtics can push past the Cavs and reach the NBA Finals, it will have nothing to do with their storied history and everything to do with figuring out a way to best LeBron in yet another elimination game. (It wouldn’t hurt if Boston could prevent Rozier from getting switched onto James; the next time Rozier stops LeBron will be his first.)

Earlier in the series, while I was in Cleveland for Games 3 and 4, James did what players do and said the key to advancing was the Cavaliers playing as a team. “It’s not about me,” LeBron insisted. Except it is. It always is. And it will be again in Boston. He’s 5-2 in Game 7s. I can’t be certain that he’ll be 6-2 after Sunday night—but I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.