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In LeBron’s twilight, the Celtics’ young stars have started to shine

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The Eastern Conference Finals has come down to a Game 7 for the ages, pitting one of the greatest of all time against a resurgent franchise fueled by youth.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

There have been so many subplots, strategy tweaks, lineup adjustments, and mini-dramas in these Eastern Conference Finals. Old dogs like JR Smith and Marcus Morris have barked at each other. Former teammates Kyle Korver and Al Horford have flexed their corporate knowledge after hundreds of games and dozens of playoff battles with and against each other. The praise for boy genius Brad Stevens has morphed into a media backlash over the last six weeks where we're not appreciating the talent of the players enough.

And then there’s LeBron James. On Friday night, he turned in another performance for the ages with a 46-11-9 stat line in Game 6 to fend off elimination and potentially extend his career in Cleveland. At 33, he leads the league in minutes played by a large margin and has shown signs of fatigue. Even though I’m skeptical of the narrative-aware LeBron, it doesn’t take away from what he’s accomplished in his career and even in these playoffs. Win or lose, he is without a doubt one of the greatest of all time.

But this is not his moment. Regardless of the outcome, he’ll undoubtedly have his two minutes. This is LeBron James. A win will be viewed as an achievement for dragging what is arguably the worst supporting cast he's ever been surrounded by to The Finals. A loss will be memorialized as his swan song in the Eastern Conference.

I get it. This could be the near end of this version of LeBron. There’s beauty in that sunset, the calm cooling of the breeze and the violent colors in the sky as LeBron sinks into the Western horizon. I can appreciate that, but in the end, for Celtics fans, these playoffs have been less about what was and more about what will be.

We've orbited LeBron for nearly a decade and he's powered the NBA into unparalleled success as the league's supernova superstar. It's been spectacular, even if he's burned us more than a few times with the Heat or as a Cavalier. But in his twilight, we’ve started to witness the illumination of not just future stars for Boston, but how those stars together will form constellations for us over the next decade and if the stars align just right, Banner 18 in the rafters, too.

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Four Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, this team’s unexpected run has been fueled by youth. We’ve seen the brash bravado of Terry Rozier, the return of Marcus Smart and his unique brand of winning plays, the development of Jaylen Brown and the growth of his confidence, and the blossoming talent of Jayson Tatum, all on the pressure-packed stage of the NBA Playoffs.

After Game 6, LeBron said that his two favorite words in sports are “Game 7.” On Sunday, this series will go the distance, pitting two intersecting story lines: LeBron James at a crossroads and the Celtics’ undeniable march forward. But Sunday isn’t just about any great player and any great franchise. This is LeBron James vs. the Boston Celtics.

LeBron has never flirted with joining the C’s. He’s never tabbed an heir to his crown like he has with Ben Simmons in Philadelphia. Boston has never been a destination vacation for him or his banana boat crew. The Garden has always been enemy territory. He played his first "last game as a Cavalier" back in 2010 when The Big Three eliminated Cleveland in 6 and indirectly packed his bags for his exodus to Miami. Game 7 on Sunday could be another turning point for James and it’s only fitting that it happens on the parquet in front of the Boston faithful.

LeBron will not go quietly into that night. He’ll scratch and claw, kick and scream, and rumble in the paint to make sure that every piece of china is broke before he abdicates his Eastern Conference throne, one that he’s occupied for the last seven years. Marcus Smart knows: “We’ve gotta be willing to come out of it with our noses bloody, with our mouths bloody. We’ve gotta be ready for a fight.” Game 7 is going to be a war with LeBron.

And it should be with the Celtics. These Celtics.

The Pacers took the Cavaliers to the limit in the first round, but outside of Lance Stephenson, there was no juice in that match up. The Raptors were a footnote. Had Kyrie been healthy for this series, we’d have the trappings of their history and soap opera. If Hayward was playing, the story would be about superteams and the ironic twist of fate that James would fall victim to one after himself being a member of one for so long.

Instead, this could be a passing of the torch between an aging heavyweight and a group of up-and-comers punching up their weight class. In Game 6, the Cavaliers were very deliberate about taking Horford, the Celtics' tried and true vet, out of the game. They double teamed him at every opportunity, forcing the young Celtics to step up on the road in an elimination game. And they did. Boston nearly dug out of another double digit hole in Cleveland behind 55 points between Rozier and Brown, thirteen 2nd half points from Tatum, and Smart doing Smart things.

We can romanticize the mystique of the Garden or pour over Boston’s analytics and splits between home and away, but the bottom line is that the kids have to be better than alright on Sunday night. This is a moment that requires greatness.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday night marks LeBron James’ eighth Game 7 of his career. Tatum, Brown, Rozier, and Smart have played in six Game 7’s combined. In LeBron’s first win-or-go-home game vs. Detroit in 2006, he was in his third year and first playoffs at 21-years-old. The Pistons were the beasts of the East and coming off back-to-back trips to The Finals. LeBron would score 27 points in a loss, but it signified the eventual changing of the guard. This was his coming out party. The young upstart had arrived in the conference and would be a force to be reckoned with for the next decade.

Sound familiar? But unlike LeBron’s one-man show back in ‘06, the Celtics are a collective. That’s a word you hear a lot in Boston these days. Stevens has talked about a “collective effort” to defend James. Brown has consistently stressed that “(LeBron) is one of the best players of all time and it’s going to take a lot to slow him down and win a game, but if I had to put my money on anybody, it would be this group.”

Youth is a fleeting commodity, particularly in a league where young players on team-friendly contracts are moved like chess pieces. Individually, we don’t know what the future holds for Tatum, Brown, Rozier, or Smart. Could any of them reach LeBron’s stratosphere by the end of their careers? Nobody knows, but collectively, they could take their first step into greatness in Game 7. Together.