The Celtics stepped into dangerous territory in Game 6. By name, it’s elimination LeBron James. By number, that signifies at least 30 points in 13 of James’ last 14 match ups when a loss would mean he’s going home. It’s the biggest reason three-fourths of the league hadn’t yet reached the NBA when he last missed the NBA Finals in 2010.
James’ continuation of unparalleled excellence, granted with some measure of theatrics mixed in, doomed the Celtics. It encapsulated in the visual of him stepping back for two three-point bombs to finish them off after logging over 40 minutes.
The Celtics receive another chance on Sunday but along with one more James elimination game on deck, the wrinkle of Kevin Love’s status entered the equation and changed the dynamic of the series over 240 minutes in.
Love collided with Jayson Tatum midway through the first quarter and exited for good, as Cleveland evaluated him for a concussion. He left unsteady, with trainers and teammates by his side, in a moment that could have lended a stroke of rare injury fortune toward Boston.
He had averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds through the first five games and provided a steady double-figure scoring threat on the road, something the Cavaliers could not rely on from anyone but James.
From the moment Love left, when Cleveland trailed 10-6, they not only outscored Boston by 14 the rest of the night but flowed smoothly on offense, dominated the boards by 13 in smaller lineups and forced the Celtics to adjust to the way they played.
That left Aron Baynes, one of the key contributors to the Game 5 win, out of the lineup. He initially played a vital role protecting the rim and switching in a five-point first quarter win for the Celts.
Jeff Green, moving to the four slot, got involved on several back-door cuts to the rim that landed him a few powerful dunks and 14 points that propelled Cleveland to a 16-point win in the second.
Larry Nance stepped into the front court for 20 minutes and tipped three misses by teammates back into the net uncontested to extinguish building Celtics momentum in the fourth quarter. Marcus Smart’s incredible block on LeBron, trailing by eight at the time, landed right back in his hands in a momentum-shattering moment.
Those contributions, while not directly related to Love’s absence, could be owed to the general small and active lineups Tyronn Lue implemented once he exited. Tristan Thompson, healthy and impactful on Al Horford in the series, played only 22 minutes in favor of Nance and Green. The Cavs still held Horford to 2-for-8 shooting and four assists.
Love left the Quicken Loans Arena calling his status for Game 7 a “toss-up.” That statement of uncertainty, combined with the fact that he suffered a concussion in March and previously missed a game with a head injury in the 2016 Finals, could position Love to miss a possible make-or-break moment toward LeBron’s future in Cleveland.
If he enters the concussion protocol, Love must be without symptoms, receive physician evaluation, complete exertion protocol and get clearance from Dr. Jeffrey Kusher of the league’s concussion program.
That would have essentially eliminate any chance he plays Sunday if his immediate symptoms triggered the program. Instead, he’ll be evaluated again before the Cavs fly to Boston tonight.
With only one day between games, which will involve travel, for Love to undergo tests and recover from a possible concussion the odds aren’t in his favor if he truly does have one. It will ultimately come down to how he’s feeling this morning.
Will it matter?
That’s a harder question given James’ ability to step up to nearly any challenge and the new approach Cleveland revealed in Game 6. It’s not preferable for Brad Stevens to match up with small ball given his team’s success in bigger lineups. He pushed Greg Monroe into action for a portion of the fourth quarter and while he posted a +8, Boston’s typically stringent defense continued to lag.
The everlasting matchup and style battle over which this series has swung will play some role, but so will basic math. Cleveland hasn’t cracked 90 points in Boston yet in three losses at the TD Garden even with Love posting 22, 13, and 14 across them.
Behind James’ 27.7 PPG and Love’s 17.7, the Cavs received 9 from Jordan Clarkson, 7.7 from Kyle Korver, 6.7 from Green and 6.0 from Rodney Hood. George Hill and JR Smith, their starting back court, averaged 7.0 points combined.
Even with the change of pace Cleveland experienced without Love, their effort relied immensely on the scoring of players like Hill, who dropped 20 on 7-of-12 shooting, for the victory. Despite an obvious uptick in defensive activity, Cleveland’s essentially allowed 100 points to the Celtics each game with the result depending on whether or not they hit their open shots.
The Cavs have shot 22/72 (30%) on open to wide open threes in Boston— Justin Rowan (@Cavsanada) May 25, 2018
The Cavs have shot 22/51 (43%) on those shots at home. pic.twitter.com/4tSW9whcms
Cleveland’s reached around 110 points in each home game, where Korver joined James and Love in double figures with over 8 PPG from Nance, Thompson and Smith.
Those splits suggest a need for Love on Sunday, but it’s a double-edged sword especially if he’s not 100 percent. The Celtics’ break didn’t arrive on Friday, but the greater impact of his absence might show in Game 7 if the rest of James’ supporting cast can’t replicate their activity.