Try as he may, LeBron James can’t earn another trip to the NBA Finals by himself. If the Cleveland Cavaliers’ don’t reverse a series-long trend and play well on the road against the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, no amount of heroics from James will be enough to stave off elimination.
Further complicating matters: The Cavs will be without their second-best player, as Kevin Love has been ruled out due to “concussion-like symptoms.”
Being without Love, the team’s second-leading scorer and top rebounder in this series, is an undeniable blow to Cleveland. It does open the door for Larry Nance Jr. to be a decisive X-factor in Game 7, however.
When Love banged heads with Celtics forward Jayson Tatum midway through the first quarter of Game 6 and did not return, it appeared as though the Cavaliers’ season would end that night. Then Nance helped to swing the game back in Cleveland’s favor.
Nance joined James, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver and Jordan Clarkson for the first eight-and-a-half minutes on the second quarter. In that span, he helped the Cavaliers go from down five to up nine.
On Cleveland’s third possession of the frame, he slammed home a putback dunk off a Clarkson bricked floater to slice Boston’s lead to three. A few minutes later, he capped off a 14-3 run with a 15-foot jumper against a flat-footed Aron Baynes.
— NBA (@NBA) May 26, 2018
The Cavaliers’ defense kicked into overdrive in the second quarter, as both Green and Korver came up with momentum-swinging blocks within a minute of one another. Nance joined the takeaway party later in the quarter, swiping an ill-advised Marcus Morris pass and feeding Clarkson in transition for the easy deuce.
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) May 26, 2018
Nance didn’t come back into the game until the waning seconds of the third quarter, but those wound up being his final minutes of rest. He played all 12 minutes of the fourth, chipping in six points on 3-of-3 shooting, four boards and another timely steal.
Early in the fourth quarter, Jaylen Brown sliced Cleveland’s lead to eight on back-to-back possessions, but Nance came up with offensive rebounds that led to points each time. Three Cavaliers possessions later, Nance again came up with an enormous putback slam after James missed a layup, pushing his team’s lead back up to nine.
— NBA (@NBA) May 26, 2018
Nance’s activity around the hoop in Game 6 helped the Cavaliers keep the Celtics at arm’s length any time they threatened to go on a run. James’ back-to-back dagger three-pointers in the final few minutes iced the game, but without Nance pounding the glass and coming up with timely buckets, Cleveland could have entered a death spiral earlier in that quarter.
“Larry came in and just gave us huge minutes,” Korver told reporters afterward. “I think, I don’t know what his stat sheet says he did, but I thought he really changed the game in a lot of ways.”
Love’s absence from Game 6 may have been a double-edged sword for Cleveland, one that could prove especially critical heading into Game 7.
The Cavaliers have less frontcourt heft without Love, which complicates their ability to pull down boards whenever Boston trots out both Baynes and Al Horford. Losing their leading rebounder may force them into more of a gang-rebound mentality, as they can’t fall back on Love as a glass-cleaner.
The same goes for Cleveland’s offensive hierarchy sans Love.
James is unquestionably the team’s alpha and omega on offense, but Love is the clear second banana, even though he’s shooting only 37.5 percent overall and 26.9 percent from three-point range in this series. Without the UCLA product on the floor, complementary players such as Nance, Green and George Hill recognize they’ll have to gobble up a larger share of the scoring duties.
“That’s what you have to do when somebody goes down,” Korver said after Game 6. “You can’t just plug somebody else in. It takes a collective effort.”
The Cavaliers aren’t going to run many (if any?) plays for Nance in Game 7. He’ll have to make his offensive impact by pulling down misses from teammates and either going up for putback slams or dishing out assists as the Celtics scramble to recover. Do those things, and Cleveland will have a puncher’s chance.
Defensively, swapping out Love’s minutes for Nance and Green may wind up being an upgrade. Whereas the Celtics actively seek out Love as a target, particularly in one-on-one situations against Horford, Nance and Green are far more versatile on defense and enable the Cavaliers to switch assignments freely. The Celtics averaged 105.4 points per 100 possessions with Love on the floor this series, but they’re mustering only 91.8 per 100 during Nance’s 85 minutes.
Heading into Game 7, Nance has the best plus-minus rating (plus-15) of any Cavaliers player. Cleveland has outscored Boston by 10.9 points per 100 possessions during his time on the floor this series, which is also the highest mark of any Cavaliers player with at least 25 minutes.
To overcome the Celtics at TD Garden, where they’re 10-0 in these playoffs, Cleveland needs complementary players like Nance to give James a boost, particularly in Love’s absence. In Game 2, James and Love combined for 64 points, 25 rebounds and 14 assists, yet the Cavaliers still lost by 13 because the rest of their supporting cast pulled a no-show.
Barring foul trouble, Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue figures to go with an eight-man rotation in Game 7: James, Hill, Green, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith in the starting lineup and Korver, Nance and Clarkson off the bench. James will likely flirt with a 40-point triple-double, as he is wont to do in elimination games, but that won’t be enough on its own to carry the Cavaliers into the Finals.
To advance past Boston and help James earn his eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals, Cleveland needs Nance to stay aggressive and make his impact felt on both ends of the floor. With a few timely offensive rebounds, putbacks and defensive takeaways, Nance may wind up being the Cavaliers’ difference-maker in Game 7.