For the past eight years, there’s been one unavoidable constant in the NBA: LeBron James playing for a championship.
James has played in every NBA Finals since 2011, winning two with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013 and bringing the Cleveland Cavaliers their first championship in franchise history in 2016. For an entire generation of basketball fans, LeBron playing until June has felt like scheduled viewing.
For one more year, at least, that won’t change.
With a 87-79 Game 7 win on Sunday, James and the Cavaliers punched their ticket to the NBA Finals, coming back from an 0-2 deficit to win the Eastern Conference Finals and handing the Celtics their first home loss of the postseason in the process.
Heading into the game, the Celtics faced the task of stopping an opponent who is historically dominant in Game 7s and LeBron James didn’t disappoint. His near triple-double of 35 points, 15 rebounds and 9 assists turned a normally raucous TD Garden into a cemetery as James once again put up a classic performance against Boston.
“It was a great atmosphere tonight,” James said after the game. “To be a part of that, to be a part of another Game 7 on the road. Those are things, like I said, when you’re done playing the game that you can only dream and wish that you can be a part of that once again.”
And unlike some games earlier in the series, LeBron’s teammates did their part to ease the load off of James’ shoulders. With All-Star forward Kevin Love out following a head injury with the Celtics Jayson Tatum in Game 6, Jeff Green became Cleveland’s unsung hero for the night, putting up 19 points and snagging 8 rebounds.
For the Celtics, it may be hard to look back on the last two games of this series and not imagine what could have been. When Boston struggled on the road yet again in Game 6 in Cleveland, it felt safe to assume that the C’s offensive woes would end once they returned home. But that was not to be.
For large stretches of the game, the Celtics looked like they were allergic to making wide open jump shots. As a team, Boston finished with a dismal 7 for 39 shooting performance from the three-point line and weren’t much better anywhere else, shooting only 34.1 percent from the field.
One of the only bright spots was the performance of Tatum, who finished with 24 points, a standing ovation from the crowd as he walked off the court and a career highlight. But not even he could right Boston’s ship.
Now that their season is over, all the Celtics can do is look back and learn from the strange and unexpected journey this year’s playoffs has been.
Part of this run feels like an over-achievement. With both Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving ruled out before the playoffs started, winning a single playoff series felt like a stretch to some.
Even when Boston won, there was always an excuse for the other team basketball pundits could turn to. When the Celtics survived the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games, it was because the Bucks were still too inexperienced.
When Boston knocked out the Philadelphia 76ers in round two, the Sixers rookie phenom Ben Simmons wasn’t scoring enough. The Celtics' success was never their own, at least in the minds of critics.
But there’s something else here that’s missing from the common narrative: This Celtics team was good. With both Hayward and Irving out, the 20-year-old Tatum got a chance to shine that he otherwise may not have had, blossoming into a legitimate phenom in the process. Jaylen Brown continued to develop into one of the most reliable wings in the league in his second year. Terry Rozier turned into one of the biggest surprises of the playoffs, wreaking havoc on opposing guards and leaving nightmares in his wake.
Newcomers Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes have stretched the floor with their versatility, scoring from within the post and shooting from beyond the arc while also taking on opposing big men. Meanwhile, veterans like Al Horford and Marcus Smart have been the foundation of this team.
What happens next may determine just how far this team goes next year. There’s no shortage of rumors swirling around the league about Boston picking up a new superstar in the off-season to compliment the already stacked roster.
But even if the Celtics do nothing, they’re still poised to be the new kings of the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Irving and Hayward, the two crown jewels of the Celtics off-season acquisitions, didn’t even have a chance to contribute to this playoff run and Boston still came within a game of making the NBA Finals. If they can come back healthy and join a young, talented core of players, this may be a team that is hard for anybody to stop.
It’s been 10 years since the Celtics last won an NBA title and in a city like Boston that might as well be a lifetime. With everything the Celtics have been through this season, it’s safe to say no one saw this team going as far as they did. Next year, championship-starved fans will expect them to go even farther.