Cavaliers vs. Celtics: LeBron's experienced cast wins out, but Boston's youth will be better for it
Of course there was LeBron, but the Cavs' veteran role players were the difference in Game 7
As much as we want to credit LeBron James, and only LeBron James, for willing this tattered version of the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season, he reminded us after over the Celtics that basketball is, in fact, a team game.
"I think what people don't understand, people that never played the game of basketball, never played team sports is that to succeed, it needs to be a team effort," James told ESPN's Doris Burke during the postgame trophy presentation. "I know I get a lot of the headlines, win lose or draw, whatever the case may be. But in order to be successful, it's a team game. I learned that from when I first started to pick up a basketball to play organized basketball at age 9."
The criticism of LeBron's supporting cast this season is well documented, and well deserved, but it was clear that this experienced, albeit flawed group was not timid or scared in their biggest game of the season. Without All-Star Kevin Love and facing a team that had yet to lose a home game this postseason, we knew it would take a herculean effort from James, which we received. But what we didn't expect was Jeff Green, maligned throughout his career for being an underachiever, scoring 19 points and pulling down eight rebounds in 42 minutes.
In addition to Green, Tristan Thompson nearly had a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds, and J.R. Smith, who hadn't hit a 3-pointer in Boston this series, made three 3-pointers and played strong defense down the stretch.
The veteran Cavs starters received the bulk of the minutes, including all 48 from James, and they were clearly the more composed and confident team as the seconds ticked down and the tension increased.
"You get all the doubters and people who've never stepped into an arena, who's never played basketball, who's never put on a tank top and shorts, who's never played anything organized, always want to try to kill my teammates, and it's unfair to them," James said. "But I'm gonna always stay true to the game of basketball because the game of basketball always stays true to me. And that's why we're going to another Finals, because my teammates played a hell of a game."
On the other side, the Celtics -- outside of 20-year-old Jayson Tatum, who was phenomenal -- showed their inexperience. Terry Rozier, the 24-year-old who filled in admirably for the injured Kyrie Irving all postseason, had a dreadful 2-for-14 night, including 0 of 10 on 3-pointers. Jaylen Brown, 22, the Celtics' best player in many games during the playoffs, was 5 for 18 overall, 3 of 12 on 3-pointers. The ever-confident Marcus Smart, 24, was 1 of 10 from the field.
It's hard to look at those numbers and not think that nerves were at least a slight contributor to the poor performance. The Celtics always bring it in terms of effort and intensity, but they just couldn't score enough to win on Sunday. Boston scored just two points from the six-minute mark until the 40-second mark of the fourth quarter, when Marcus Morris made a jumper with the game already well out of reach. The Cavs scored 15 points over that same stretch.
They don't want to hear it right now, but this loss will fuel the young Celtics for years to come. Even the most accomplished of NBA legends say pretty much the same thing: They don't remember the wins -- they remember the losses. The bitter taste in the Boston locker room will turn into motivation, and the next time they face a Game 7 or an elimination game, they'll remember this feeling.
The good news for the Celtics is that they probably won't have to wait very long. Assuming the health of Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston will likely enter next season as the Eastern Conference favorites. With Tatum, Brown, Rozier and Smart having to shoulder the playmaking load this postseason, they'll be in position to thrive in their normal roles next year.
It was truly a fascinating series -- a veteran team on the downslide against an upstart group well ahead of schedule. The veteran Cavs won out this time, but the young Celtics may have their revenge soon enough.
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