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Five Keys: Cavaliers at Celtics - Game 7

David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Win or Go Home

If you agree that the two sweetest words in sports are “Game Seven” then tonight is your night as the Wine & Gold square off with the Celtics for a one-game take-all to represent the Eastern Conference.

On Friday night, the Cavaliers kept their title hopes alive, taking a second-quarter lead and not looking back – despite losing Kevin Love to a concussion just five minutes into the affair. Jeff Green filled in for Love and had his best game of the series while LeBron James continued his incredible postseason onslaught – notching his seventh 40-point outing of the postseason and bringing the Cavs back from the brink for Game 7.

Through the first six games, the Eastern Conference Finals have been a tale of two cities; with each team winning in convincing fashion on their home floor. The Celtics have gone 10-0 at TD Garden in the 2018 Playoffs and have beaten the Cavaliers by an average of 17.0 points per – including a 96-83 loss in Cleveland last Wednesday night.

The Cavaliers are 4-2 all-time in Game 7s – including their home victory over Indiana in the First Round. The Cavaliers have history on their side – going 15-1 in potential closeout games since 2009 and have won six of their last eight when facing elimination since LeBron James’ return in 2015.

Of course, none of that means anything when the ball goes up at the Garden later this evening as the Cavs try to join the Celtics, Lakers and Heat as the only franchises to reach four straight NBA Finals.

Key: Demolition Man

After his historic 2018 Playoff run, you might think there’s not much more that LeBron James can do to amaze the basketball universe. But the four-time MVP continues to ascend to new heights seemingly with each passing game – and he was in full-form on Friday night at The Q.

In Game 6, James went off for his third 40-point night of the series – finishing with 46 points on 17-for-33 shooting, including 5-of-7 from beyond the arc and 7-of-11 from the stripe, leading both teams with 11 boards and nine assists to go with three steals and a nasty chase-down block of Terry Rozier.

The King gave the sold-out crowd at The Q quite a scare in the fourth quarter, hitting the deck grasping his right knee after a collision with Larry Nance Jr. All James did after walking it off was score 12 more points, including back-to-back bombs with just over two minutes to play after Boston had cut Cleveland’s lead to just seven points.

As expected, LeBron has posted monster numbers in previous Game 7s – averaging 34.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.0 steals as his teams have gone 5-2 in those contests, winning each of the last five. In Cleveland’s Game 7 win over Indiana, James went off for 45 points – the same amount he scored in a Game 7 here in Boston back in 2008.

LeBron’s a different dude these days and he’ll be ready to rumble with an eighth-straight trip to the NBA Finals riding on tonight.

Key: Green Energy

It’s been an odd Playoff run for Kevin Love – who’s been excellent at times and struggled at others. The five-time All-Star barely had a chance to do anything on Friday night at The Q, and he’s out for tonight’s Game 7 in Boston after inadvertently cracking heads with Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum early in the affair.

Love walked woozily to the bench after the collision and, not long after, back to the Cavs locker room where he remained for the rest of the evening. On Saturday, Love was placed in the league’s concussion protocol and he’ll be watching the final game of the ECF in street clothes.

With Love on the shelf, the Cavaliers will turn to Jeff Green, who had easily his best outing of the series on Friday night – notching nine of his 14 points in the second quarter after Love went down. The former Celtic finished 4-of-10 from the floor and 5-of-5 from the stripe, adding three boards and a pair of blocked shots.

Like many of his teammates, Green has been up and down throughout the postseason – getting off to a slow start against Indiana, netting double-figures in three of the four games against Toronto and posting a quiet series against Boston before Friday night’s performance.

With Green getting the start on Sunday night, it’s still unclear whether Brad Stevens will stick with Aron Baynes in the starting lineup or return to Marcus Morris.

Key: Guard Duty

If there’s one aspect of either squad that’s been an indicator of how this series has varied from venue to venue, it’s the play of the starting guards – and there’s no better example than George Hill.

The numbers bare it out: In Cleveland’s three games in Boston, Hill is averaging 5.0 points per, shooting 31 percent from the floor. In his three games at The Q, the 10-year vet from IUPUI is averaging 15.3 points per and shooting 53 percent from the floor.

The numbers are equally stark for JR Smith. In three games in Cleveland, Swish is averaging 8.3 points and shooting 47 percent from long-distance; in Boston, his numbers drop to 2.0 ppg on 14 percent shooting, having missed all 11 three-point attempts here at TD Garden.

If the Wine & Gold are to advance to their fourth-straight Finals – and considering the absence of Kevin Love – they’ll need to get more from their starting backcourt on Sunday night.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown had been struggling in Cleveland before notching 27 points on Friday night – going 11-of-18 from the floor, but finishing with only three boards and an assist. The Cavaliers held the impressive sophomore from Cal in check in Game 5, when he finished with 17 points on 4-for-15 shooting, but he’s always a threat to post a big performance.

Terry Rozier has been outstanding in the Playoffs – manning the point with both Kyrie Irving and Shane Larkin on the shelf.

The Cavs looked to have figured out the former Shaker Heights star, holding him to eight points on 3-for-15 shooting in Game 5. But the fourth-year man from Louisville enjoyed some home cookin’ on Friday – leading Boston with 28 points, going 10-of-16 from the floor, including 6-of-10 from beyond the arc.

Key: Emptying the Bench

In the NBA Playoffs, rotations can change from series to series and from game to game – and that’s been the case for both squads throughout the Eastern Conference Finals.

With injuries to some key pieces, the Celtics have basically gone with a seven-man rotation against the Cavaliers – bringing Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart off the bench.

After a big night in Game 1 – finishing with 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting – the Cavs have held him in check, averaging 10.8 points on 36 percent shooting over the next five contests.

Smart played a stellar floor game in Game 2 of the series, but he’s been up and down in the other five games, averaging 9.7 points on 37 percent shooting in the series.

The Wine & Gold’s bench will get a little thinner on Sunday night with Jeff Green moving into the starting lineup.

That’ll likely mean more minutes and touches for Jordan Clarkson, who still hasn’t gotten over the hump in his first foray into the postseason. The fourth-year pro can’t complain about not getting his shots; he’s attempted 41 in the five games he’s played in the series, but has connected on just 13 of them – shooting 32 percent from the floor in the ECF; 31 percent in the 2018 postseason.

Larry Nance Jr.’s field goal percentage in the series is just the opposite – missing only one shot in 12 attempts – including a perfect 5-for-5 performance on Friday night, adding seven boards and a pair of steals.

But the most critical Cleveland reserve on Sunday night is Kyle Korver, who’s tailed off after a pair of strong outings in Games 3 and 4 – averaging just 6.5 points per over the last two, shooting 4-of-12 from the floor, including 4-of-8 from deep over that stretch.

In many ways, the Cavaliers have gone as Korver has gone in the 2018 postseason – and they’ll need the veteran sharpshooter at the top of his game tonight.

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