There are two kinds of people in the world: the results oriented and those who are all about the journey. The results-oriented crowd will tell you only the last minutes of a basketball game are worth watching. All that matters is who won. The backpackers will counter that landing a helicopter on a mountaintop doesn’t provide the same breathtaking view as when you climbed to the top through the wind and the cold under your own power. Then they’ll dare you to snatch a bottlecap from their hand and call you ‘Grasshopper’.
In Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference final between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, LeBron James kept both groups happy.
The Vince Lombardi acolytes tuned in just in time to see LeBron set up on the left, then feint towards the hoop against Jayson Tatum before sidestepping and burying a long three with 2:22 on the clock.
Forty-two seconds later, the King provided his own instant replay. Tatum bit on the fake again. James stepped to his left and let fly before an enraged and embarrassed Tatum leapt at him. James slithered further to his left. Tatum stumbled past. The Quicken Loans Arena erupted when the ball went in. James, chest puffed out, did his best Kimbo Slice impersonation for the crowd, including an ‘accidental’ bump and a very intentional game-over stare for Tatum as he cavorted back on defense.
And that was that. Even though there was another minute-forty remaining, the score read 107-96 Cleveland. The results-oriented crowd’s viewing experience was complete. None of them felt any need to have their blood pressure checked.
On the other hand, those of us who watched the game in full did our part in helping to pay off a few med school loans.
Cleveland started out on the front foot, jumping out to an early first-quarter lead. Then James took over on the way to a 46-point night. Boston’s five-point lead after 12 minutes became an 11-point deficit at the half. When the Cavs opened the lead to 16 halfway through the third, that third group of people I forgot to mention assumed there was nothing more to see and moved along.
It was understandable. James couldn’t miss; Boston couldn’t hit. When the Celtics tried to sneak a fast break after one James layup, the King came storming back to swat away Terry Rozier’s response.
When Boston inbounded, Tristan Thompson blocked another. But the Celtics weren’t as done as they looked. A minute before the block, Tatum had made his first field goal of the game. JR Smith had shut him down for 2-plus quarters. Early in the third, he’d passed the ball to Cleveland’s George Hill, then was called for traveling. But, as is often the case when one basket finally goes in, more followed.
Tatum ended the quarter with nine points and an assist. At the other end, LeBron began to look human. He missed a shot and made a bad pass. JR Smith began pleading with referees as he was blown for two fouls. He was back to being the Cav’s drama queen. LeBron would later remind everyone it was the drama king who sat on the throne.
But to begin the fourth quarter, Cleveland continued to struggle and the Celtics began to carry the play. Smith drew another foul. Kyle Korver drew a couple. James continued to miss. It was obvious the Cavs were holding on in an elimination game. If you were rooting for them, a gnawing feeling grew in the pit of your stomach. If you were backing Boston, hope grew.
Especially when James tripped over a teammate three-and-a-half minutes into the final frame. He rocked on his back like an armadillo, clutching his right shin. The suspense in that moment–would he continue or, [OMG!] was Cleveland’s season over?–demanded full emotional commitment from everyone watching. Sorry, you last-two-minute guys, but you f***ed up. James pushed himself to his feet, hobbled gingerly for a possession, then attacked the basket. Another miss came, followed by a driving layup after letting the shot-clock drop to critical mass.
Larry Nance Jr had come on for Tristan Thompson with a minute to go in the third. He was the one who, off balance, had crashed into LeBron. The second-generation baller wasn’t about to be the guy who broke LeBron, however. Whenever James drove the lane from that moment, Nance cleaned up so much garbage he could star in a Men at Work reboot. After Marcus Smart rejected no.23, Nance picked up an offensive rebound and put it back. He slammed the next one home.
Not one to be ungrateful, LeBron would set him up for another dunk with a little less than three minutes remaining.
Nance’s six points and two offensive boards kept the pushing the gap to nine rather than allowing it to drop below seven. Had Boston managed a three-point play to cut it to four at any time, you had the feeling Cleveland wouldn’t hang on. That was the knife’s edge on which we all balanced. James had the same feeling. The difference was he did something about it. With the pain subsiding, LeBron switched tactics. Following the pass to Nance, he set up against Tatum on the left and dropped the two bombs.
There is a Game 7 to come tomorrow night. In Boston. Neither team has won on the road in this series. Cleveland hasn’t even come close at the TD Garden. After watching LeBron James exert his will in Game 6, you get the feeling the script could undergo a last-minute rewrite. And it’s your choice. You can tune in around 10:45 or so to catch the last few minutes, and come away with mild satisfaction or disappointment. Or you can put your heart through a wringer for two-and-a-half hours so that your cardiologist can make his next BMW payment. I think you’ll find the latter was worth it.
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.