What a cruel irony it is that in order to save a season in which LeBron James pushed himself to his limits in almost every way, he will have to do even more. A day after scoring 46 points in 46 minutes to stave off elimination in Game 6 of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference finals against the upstart Boston Celtics, James will now have to somehow win a game in Boston—something he has yet to do this postseason—without his only reliable teammate by his side.
Almost 24 hours after Chris Paul’s hamstring injury rocked the Western Conference finals, an injury may now shape the East, too. Kevin Love was ruled out for Sunday’s winner-take-all Game 7 at TD Garden after a head injury suffered in Friday night’s 109-99 victory led to concussion-like symptoms, according to the team.
Love banged heads with Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum midway through the first quarter. Both players immediately seemed shaken by the collision, though Love, who was struck in the front of his head, immediately crumpled to the ground:
Kevin Love has been ruled out for Game 7 with concussion-like symptoms after this collision with Jayson Tatum in the first quarter. pic.twitter.com/GKAhgqbhDi— ESPN (@espn) May 26, 2018
The All-Star forward left the game and did not return. He was placed in the NBA’s concussion protocol thereafter. Love, for what it’s worth, also sat out a game in the 2016 NBA Finals and a game in March because of concussions.
Surprisingly, the Cavs’ non-LeBron teammates responded in Love’s absence. James indeed played all but two minutes, despite Cleveland at one point leading by 16 points. (No lead is safe when J.R. Smith is one of your best players.) But George Hill (20 points, his most this postseason) and Jeff Green (14 points) gave James the support he needed to take over yet another elimination game.
It’s hard to read too much into the result of one playoff game in a series that swings wildly depending on location, but the Cavs may have even found something, rotation-wise, without their second-best player on the court. While Love has been a fairly consistent source of offense for the Cavs since a wobbly first-round series, he has the worst net rating on the team (minus-7.4) in the East finals outside of the self-eating virus that are Rodney Hood minutes (minus-23; how!); Tristan Thompson wasn’t much of a factor in Game 6, but his emergence as a consistent starter this series has proved an effective counter to the Celtics’ early-series success. The regular starting lineup (James, Love, Thompson, Smith, and George Hill) has a respectable 5 net rating. But their best two with a double-digit-minute sample size don’t feature Love, and instead place James at the nominal 4 next to either Thompson or Larry Nance Jr.: James-Green-Nance-Kyle Korver-Jordan Clarkson (49.8 net rating in 31 minutes), and Hill-Smith-Green-James-Thompson (16.3 net in 24 minutes).
The Cavs reportedly almost traded Love last offseason, before the Kyrie Irving fiasco ensued, for Paul George, which would have left Cleveland thinner in the frontcourt but far more dynamic on both sides of the ball. The deal of course never happened, but the Cavs clearly valued the basic premise, moving Love to the 5 for the bulk of the regular season to lean into versatility. The deeply flawed, old roster Cleveland has built around James has made it difficult to keep up with teams playing the more modern style, leaving the Cavs’ efforts to look like something approximating your parents doing the Nae Nae. But while LeBron can make the best of any situation (see: every game this season), his ideal environs may be playing next to specialists that can fill in what he can’t—in this case, a traditional 5 to eat up the rebounds like Thompson and Nance (seven in Game 6), and three shooters on the wing. Love has had the sort of team success he never could’ve dreamed of in Minnesota by fitting in (not out) next to James, but even at his best, his once-fantasyland skill set has been reduced to a more specific utility.
That’s the bargain you strike when teaming up with LeBron: He can bring you to new heights, but it will be done his way. The Cavs and any other serious suitor for his services in free agency this summer will be reminded of that soon enough. When, though, will be dictated by Sunday’s result. Which will again be dictated by LeBron.
Each playoff team has a slogan emblazoned on their warmup gear. For the Cavs, it’s rather simple: Whatever It Takes. For LeBron, the answer is everything.