Commentary

Screwball finish to a screwball game

Originally Published: May 15, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Celtics have three All-Stars, but the Cavs are showing that they only need one as LeBron James dominated with 32 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists as Cleveland forced a Game 7.

CLEVELAND -- As the final buzzer sounded, LeBron James wound up and flung the ball as hard as he could toward the other end of the court.

It was a pitch to nobody, a hurl that ended up flying over the top of the backboard after drifting 2 or 3 feet from left to right in midflight, a screwball so perfect that Carl Hubbell and Jim Carrey both would have been proud of.

In a way, it was a fitting ending for a Game 6 that was screwy in its own particular ways.

Like the charging call that went against Paul Pierce with 49.9 seconds left; like the Jekyll and Hyde act (or should we call him Houdini?) pulled by Game 5 hero Rajon Rondo; like the disparity on the offensive boards that ended up making the difference for Cleveland; like the fact that James took more free throws than the entire Celtics team.

And it was like the eight turnovers that blemished an otherwise terrific line for James -- 32 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two steals -- in leading Cleveland to a 74-69 victory Friday night that tied the series 3-3 and forced a Game 7 Sunday afternoon in Boston.

"There was no quit in us, no quit in them," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.

We'll give Rivers that point, because his Celtics never would throw in the towel down the stretch of a game in which they trailed by as many as 16. But although there wasn't any quit, there wasn't a hint of killer instinct, either. The Celtics showed the same lack of aggression and execution that defined all six of their road games this postseason -- all of them losses.

The offensive rebounding battle went to Cleveland, 16-7, and the second-chance points were 17-2 in favor of the Cavs. Boston did not score 20 points in a single quarter, nor did Boston capitalize on a defensive effort that held Cleveland to 32.9 percent shooting from the field.

"As bad as we looked offensively at times, we looked great on the defensive end," James said. "We give ourselves a chance every time we defend like we can."

When they needed stops in the fourth quarter, the Celtics usually got them, too. But when they needed buckets, they got a hesitation move inside and a pass back outside from Kevin Garnett with 2:49 left that resulted in a traveling call instead of a strong move to the hoop. And, most importantly, they got a questionable charging foul called against Pierce with Boston trailing 72-67. James blocked his path to the basket and sprawled backward with an acting job that probably topped anything he's done for Sprite, Vitamin Water or Nike. Heck, even Dwyane Wade, Manu Ginobili and Vlade Divac, wherever he is, had to have been impressed.

"Good call by the ref," Pierce said, dripping with sarcasm, as he cut short his postgame interview in a cramped, frustrated Celtics locker room.

"I thought the charge call on Paul … well, you guys take it from there," Rivers said. "That's a huge call to make, and I'm just going to leave it there."

James said he got his hand on the ball and knocked it away from Pierce, and was expecting an out-of-bounds call with the ball going back to Boston. "But they called it a charge, so I guess that's what it was," he said, wearing one of those mischievous grins he had to have learned from his 3-year-old son.

"It was either win or go home, and I'm not ready to go home," James said.

So we head to a Game 7, which will be James' first since his Cavaliers were steamrolled at The Palace of Auburn Hills two seasons ago in what -- until he erased it a season later -- was the defining moment of James' postseason career: a 79-61 loss.

James' offensive struggles in the first four games of this series seem to have ceased, and his performance in Game 6 -- especially because of the energy he brought to the equation coming out of the locker room to start the second half -- made this his best all-around game of the series.

Nobody in Boston will doubt the fact that he'll be the best player on the floor Sunday, so it'll be a matter of who shows up: the team with one superstar, a 23-year-old who has already been to the NBA Finals, or the team with three stars, none of them as super as James, none of whom have ever been as far down the playoff road as James has, none of whom have a reputation for coming up big in the biggest moments of the biggest games.

"It's going to be electrifying in that building. This is really life or death for both teams. Everyone prepares in the offseason to play into June, and you have to give it everything you've got," James said. "It's not just what happened in the Game 7 in Detroit, I've learned so much. I've learned how to close out games, how to prepare better for playoff games, so it's not just one game that prepares me. I've learned a lot since that Game 7 loss against Detroit.

"We can win. We know we can win."

If the basketball gods have any sense of drama, it'll be a good one Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

Not a great one, mind you, because six games of these guys each being dominant at home and docile on the road has robbed us of any preconceived notions of imminent greatness.

Chances are, it'll be a screwball game in some sort of way. That's what Friday night's game was, and James' left-to-right breaking ball fit perfectly as the ending.

The ending for now, anyway, before the real finish comes Sunday.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.