Puskas: LeBron got by with a little help from his friends

Green was the theme of the night for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

But it wasn’t the kind of green that favored the Boston Celtics.

With All-Star forward Kevin Love out with a concussion, the pre-game talk before Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals was all about which Cleveland Cavaliers role player might step up to help LeBron James with the massive task of getting this team back to the NBA Finals.

Veteran Jeff Green — a former Celtic — turned out to be the guy. James played every second and provided his usual numbers (35 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists), but after a slow start in which LeBron’s teammates shot 3-for-14 early, Green put up 19 points and eight rebounds in 41 minutes.

The wearing of Green on the Celtics — especially after Boston built an early 12-point lead — was just what the Cavaliers needed to finally steal a game, 87-79, at TD Garden on Sunday night.

Conventional wisdom suggested James would need to approach 50 points again for Cleveland to get past Boston, which played farther into May than the absence of the injured Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving suggested was possible.

But without their two best players, green also described the Celtics, whose starting five was young and athletic, but came up short in the biggest fourth quarter of their season.

Rookie Jayson Tatum showed why he is a rising star in the league, but Youngstown native Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris both struggled. Rozier was 2 for 14 from the floor and missed all 10 of his 3-pointers. Morris shot just 1 of 10.

Tatum, just 20 years old, led Boston with 24 points. He dunked over James and taunted the King of the NBA, then made a 3-pointer in a fourth-quarter sequence that gave the Celtics a two-point lead.

But Green answered with a 3-pointer and James got the last laugh as the Cavaliers pulled away and the Celtics shrank in the biggest moments of Game 7 on their home court.

Boston fell in love with the 3-pointer, but shot just 18 percent (7 of 39) from deep. As James and the Cavaliers strengthened their grip on Game 7 late, the Celtics began to panic and launched one ill-advised shot after another.

Cleveland also struggled from the perimeter in a typical Game 7 — heavy on defense and physical play — and finished just 9 of 35. But James and J.R. Smith each made three 3-pointers, Green had two and all of those makes were big. Kyle Korver’s only 3-point make in six tries also came in a big fourth-quarter moment.

But while the 3-pointer wasn’t Cleveland’s friend, the player Larry Nance Jr. described as “the baddest man on the planet” was just that.

James, now 33 and a veteran of more of these moments than we can count, took over in the fourth quarter just the way you’d expect the most physically gifted player who ever stepped on a court to do it.

James scored or assisted on the Cavaliers’ first 12 points of the fourth and made it look so easy that the game was over before the Celtics even realized their season was over.

Can we just dispense with the GOAT talk at this point? No, these Cavaliers are not the 2007 LeBron-led Cavaliers, who were swept in the NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurts. But they’re also not the 2016 Cavs, with James, Irving and Love as a Big Three.

For LeBron to get this team from where it was at the trade deadline to the NBA Finals has to be a top-three accomplishment in a career we’re still struggling to fully appreciate. I watched Michael Jordan’s entire career. Jordan never had to do this.

But as great as James was Sunday night and throughout this playoff run — easily the single best postseason performance anyone has ever had — LeBron finally got some help on the road in Boston.

It’s hard to underestimate James, but people have been underestimating the Cavaliers all season. They entered Game 7 as a decided underdog at TD Garden.

But the offseason speculation about LeBron’s future will have to wait a couple more weeks, because the baddest man on the planet was his usual self and he got a little help from his friends.

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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