2018 Playoffs | East Finals: Celtics (2) vs. Cavaliers (4)

With an eye on the future, Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James pushed to the brink

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CLEVELAND — Sometimes it’s just a basketball game. Sometimes it’s about surviving and advancing. And sometimes, it’s past, present and future rolled into one.

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That last perspective is the big-picture, all-encompassing one in play at Quicken Loans Arena Friday night for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference championship series (8:30 ET, ESPN). Normally, it’s rare that a Game 6 – without nearly the cachet of those vaunted, nail-biting Game 7s – would pack such a punch. But this is no ordinary scenario.

No ordinary win-or-go-home pivot point.

No ordinary dominant central figure.

LeBron James is what brings the context to this clash between his Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. His is a career measured in championship rings and lifetime NBA statistical totals, yes, but also in Finals appearances, elimination-game performances and the ability to be great when greatness matters most.

James’ active streak of seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals is part of the “past” mentioned up top, the train of history that James – as one of the league’s legends, even if he were to quit tomorrow – sends down the track every time he steps on a court. It’s also the one he seems least interested in, assuring fans and media every year around this time that some day, most likely “with a bottle of wine,” he’ll sit back with friends and confidantes and assess his legacy for himself.

The future? That’s the uncertainty in which James seems to revel, or at least thrive, as it relates to his whereabouts for any given season. He set that in motion too, eight years ago, when he took his prodigious talents to South Beach for a four-year crash education in “super teams” and winning. Then he did it again in 2014, boomeranging home not to his Mom’s couch in the basement but to the franchise in Cleveland where, in basketball terms, he was raised.

Four years later, James is poised to do it again. He has an option in his contract for 2018-19 that allows him either to stay in Cleveland or to leave via free agency for … whatever suits him.

If James wants to build another team of stars and buddies, if he prefers to jump aboard a team growing with young talent already in place such as Philadelphia, if he wants to move for lifestyle and business as much as basketball this time or if he decides that being the King of northeast Ohio to oversee the franchise he presumptively will choose to purchase someday, the choice rightfully is his.

When he came back to Cleveland and led the Cavaliers to three consecutive Finals and the 2016 championship, all paperwork was stamped “Paid In Full.” He owes the basketball public in his home state or elsewhere nothing, as far as on-court achievements or striving.

James steadfastly has declined to address his summer plans whenever asked, and it’s likely they’re being formulated in real time as this 2018 postseason unspools. He shrugged off the idea that he is playing now with his previous Finals appearances in mind, too, when talking with reporters after Cleveland’s Game 5 loss in Boston Wednesday.

“I’ve never went to any season saying, ‘OK, let’s have a Finals streak,’” James said. “It’s just all about just win every game and it should put us in position to play for a championship. We have another opportunity on Friday to be as good as we can be, play Cavs basketball on our home floor and force a Game 7.”

If I had to pick one guy and choose one guy to prevail, it would be LeBron. I know he’ll be great come tomorrow.”

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue on James

So others can dwell on the past and obsess about the future. James and the Cavaliers need to be very much in the present if they want to continue playing basketball with their ultimate goal just five victories away, with this Cleveland roster as currently constituted.

It has been a tortuous season for the Cavs – yes, yes, they have James, so that’s an automatic head start over the rest of the NBA, but it doesn’t make them impervious to setbacks and hiccups. The most notable came at point guard, when All-Star Kyrie Irving made clear last summer his intention to play elsewhere this season. Cleveland’s front office blinked, trading the dynamic ball handler and shot creator to Boston.

And that was only the start of it. Among the assets the Cavaliers got in return, guard Isaiah Thomas was damaged goods whose lingering rehab from a hip injury gouged into January. When Thomas finally did play, he was oil to the rest of the Cavs’ (particulary James’) water. And Jae Crowder didn’t fit either.

So more trades. Cleveland overhauled itself in early February, sending out six players, bringing back four. It has blended them into a whole in fits and starts, with coach Tyronn Lue not sure which player will perform well from one game to the next even within each playoff series.

It’s one thing for a young team such as Boston to experience sizable ups and downs in reliability as its players earn their playoff legs. It’s quite another for salty Cavs veterans such as George Hill and J.R. Smith to do vanishing acts at the same time, as if they’re all trembly based on the home vs. road schedule.

Cutting through it all, of course, is James. He’s been at this so long, tested-and-passed so many times in all manner of circumstances, that the default position for fans, media and even his coaches is to take him for granted.

In Boston Wednesday, in what clearly was one of his poorer games this postseason and one in which he looked and admitted he was tired, James still had 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while making half of his 22 shots in 39 minutes.

And when Lue spoke to reporters on a conference call Thursday, he sounded pretty much like every other Cleveland hopeful. “If I had to pick one guy and choose one guy to prevail, it would be LeBron. I know he’ll be great come tomorrow.”

James simply is the NBA’s top scorer in elimination games, at 33.5 ppg across 21 such predicaments. Four times in seven elimination games faced by Cleveland, he has scored at least 40 points.

So before the Cavaliers’ present becomes their past, lest anyone get ahead of this playoff process and speculate about James’ possibly-maybe-potentially last home game (or last game, period) with Cleveland, recall how he has handled this situations before.

It really does boil down to the old saying, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, which is why they call it the present.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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