CLEVELAND -- During a timeout with one minute and 40 seconds left in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Friday, a flabbergasted fan in section 100 of Quicken Loans Arena dramatically bowed to LeBron James. He then shrugged his shoulders toward a friend and bowed some more. As far as reactions to LeBron highlights go, this is relatively normal in Cleveland -- except for the fact that the fan was wearing a Boston Celtics warmup shirt.
If there was ever a moment to surrender to an opponent's greatness, this was it. James had hit two consecutive step-back 3-pointers, logged at 27 feet away, over Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. On the first one, Tatum came about as close as you can get to blocking the shot without doing so. On the second, James appeared to hop even farther back in an attempt to get more space. Both of them are examples of shots that defenders usually want star players to take.
"Great defense by Tatum, great shots by LeBron," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "Hats off. Tremendous. I thought the second one wasn't quite as contested maybe as the first one. The first one, that was ridiculous."
James finished with 46 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and a block in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 109-99 win, forcing a Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday. It was unbelievable because this was his 99th game of the season and, two days earlier, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue had said he noticed him looking tired. It was unbelievable because he appeared to hurt himself when banging knees with Larry Nance Jr. in the fourth quarter, limping around a bit but insisting on staying in the game. It was unbelievable because James played the game's first 35 minutes and lost his No. 2 scoring option, Kevin Love, after five minutes because Love took a hit to the head.
It was also, in a way, predictable. James was in an elimination game, after all.
Hours before saving the Cavaliers' season, James declined to say much about his track record with his back against the wall. "I mean, I don't enjoy being in a position where it's like, you lose, you go home," he said, adding that he hasn't won every elimination game and has been "subpar" in some of them. When a reporter asked him about his 45-point, 15-rebound performance against the Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, he said he hadn't thought about it recently and doesn't draw anything from it.
James, however, has the luxury of not needing to participate in his own mythmaking here. Others will do it for him. Before the game started, you likely heard about his elimination-game averages of 33.5 points, the most in NBA history, plus 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. If you had been told he was about to beat all those averages and score more than he ever had in this scenario, you probably wouldn't have been surprised. More than the numbers, the moments of transcendence he had -- those clutch 3s, his layup-and-chasedown-block sequence in the third quarter -- were stunning.
This was the kind of game that forces you to think about whether James might be the best of all time. Stevens said that James is the "best player in the game," and Cleveland guard George Hill declared him "the best that I've seen, ever." An exhausted James downplayed the idea that he reaches another level when in these situations.
"I just go out and play," James said. "I have a drive. I have a love of the game. I have a passion for the game, and while I have the opportunity to lace my shoes up and put a uniform on, then I try to go out and do my job to the best of my ability. Does it always work out? Obviously, no. I'm not undefeated in my career. Does it always [equal] me playing great? I haven't always played great in my career. But I just always want to try to maximize when I'm on the floor, and I've been able to do that in my 15th year so far."
More believable: Cavs sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who was swept in 2015 and 2016 by James as a member of the Atlanta Hawks, said James "wanted this game so bad," adding that he has seen James play "a lot of really great games" but this is near the top of the list.
"He craves those moments," Korver said. "He loves those moments. When the game is on the line, when the season's on the line. He's been rising up. That's what the great players do."
Hill, another playoff-foe-turned-teammate, was eliminated by James' Miami Heat in 2012, 2013 and 2014 when he was a member of the Indiana Pacers. Like Korver, he sounded awestruck, saying he is amazed at what James is able to do despite how long he has been in the league, the minutes he has played and the "guys he has hanging off his body." Hill said he could not even put into words what it's like to see him consistently make crucial plays.
"I've been in the league for some years and ran across him on the other side and really hated his guts," Hill said. "But to have him on our side, it kind of lets me take a deep breath of fresh air. It's just something that you really can't explain what he's doing night in, night out. It's just something special."
Hill is not the only one who has difficulty explaining and contextualizing James' heroics. At this point in his career, after watching him erase a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit against a 73-win team, after seeing him destroy the spirits of would-be challengers to his Eastern Conference throne, James is expected to pull a rabbit out of his hat whenever his team needs it.
But when he shows you something genuinely new and extraordinary -- like those step-back 3s -- he is undeniable. Allegiances aside, James can give you goosebumps, turning you into just another crazed fan in Cleveland, bowing to the king of the sport.