BOSTON • With a little help from his team-mates, though not that much, LeBron James dazzled once again in a play-off elimination game, sending Cleveland back to the National Basketball Association Finals on Sunday night, and keeping himself in a Cavs uniform for at least another two weeks.
In a game that looked bleak at the outset, with the Cavaliers playing without injured All-Star Kevin Love, James powered an offence that started the game atrociously and then did just enough to break the upstart hearts of the young Boston Celtics with a 87-79 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
He played all 48 minutes and finished with 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, missing a triple-double only because the Cavs missed 26-of-35 three-pointers, many of them uncontested shots from pin-point passes he set up.
Fortunately for the Cavs, the Celtics were even worse, shooting a dismal seven-for-39 from behind the three-point line. Rookie Jayson Tatum led them with 24 points.
As a result, Boston's somewhat improbable play-off run, which came with two All-Star players - Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving - lost to injury, ended in stark disappointment.
"We've been counted out for a long time this season. I'm determined to get the most. I'm trying to squeeze this orange until there's no more juice left," James said.
After pointing out that the Celtics had been undefeated at TD Garden in the play-offs until Sunday, James saluted team-mate Jeff Green, who started in Love's place and contributed 19 points and eight rebounds for Cleveland.
Consecutive NBA Finals LeBron James has reached.
Times Cleveland have been crowned Eastern Conference champions with James.
Minutes out of 48 James was on court against Boston in Game 7.
James had approached the chance to book an eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, and his ninth overall with the measured calm of a man who readily understood that all he had done to get the Cavs this far was, or should be, beyond reproach.
Awestruck Boston coach Brad Stevens could only pay tribute to him after another epic post-season performance, calling it "a joke" and "unbelievable".
"For me, I don't put too much added pressure on myself, I just go out and play my game," James said.
"It's a Game 7. It's something that you wish you had when you're done playing, but more than that, it's just basketball for me."
Indeed, as much of a lightning rod as he has been at various points in his career, what critic in his or her right mind could find fault in his latest reputational climb?
It might be a reach to say this edition of the Cavs' supporting cast was even worse than the 2006-07 version - think Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas - who were swept in the Finals by the San Antonio Spurs.
But few contenders have ever dealt with what the Cavs experienced this season - a revolving door operating like a thrill ride gone haywire, creating what James has described as "four or five seasons wrapped in one".
And now James, and his grateful team-mates wait to see if they will start the Finals on Thursday night at Golden State or Houston.
For 11 of his 15 professional seasons, "King James" has stood and delivered for his home state franchise, who have now won five conference championships under him.
A convincing argument could be made that if the speculation is true and he is about to stage another free-agent exit, this time it should be to a standing ovation.
HOUSTON V GOLDEN STATE
West Finals, Game 7
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