CLEVELAND — LeBron James scored 46 points and preserved his reign atop the Eastern Conference for at least one more game as the Cleveland Cavaliers shook off losing All-Star Kevin Love with a head injury and beat the Boston Celtics 109-99 on Friday night to force a Game 7.
James, playing in perhaps his final game for the Cavs in Cleveland, delivered another sensational performance — he added 11 rebounds and nine assists while playing all but two minutes — to avoid elimination and delay any decisions about his future.
The king is not dead, and he still has a chance to make his eighth straight NBA Finals.
“It feels good just to be able to play for another game,” James said. “Like I’ve always said, Game 7 is the best two words in sports. … We should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”
This back-and-forth series, in which home court has meant everything, will have a climatic conclusion Sunday at TD Center, where the Celtics are 10-0 this post-season.
“We have one game to be able to compete for a championship, and what more could you ask for?” James said. “If I’d have told you at the beginning of the season we only needed one game to make the NBA Finals, we’d take it.”
George Hill added 20 points, and Jeff Green 14 for the Cavs. They won their eighth straight at home and will play their second Game 7 of these playoffs.
Terry Rozier paced the Celtics with 28 points, and Jaylen Brown had 27.
The Celtics were still within seven in the final three minutes before James made consecutive 3-pointers, punctuating the second by pounding his chest with both fists and screaming along with 20,562 others.
Just for good measure, he added a three-point play and then was taken out of the game to a rousing ovation and chants of “Cavs in 7!”
“Just a lot of heart, a lot of grit, bring resilient,” James said.
Boston’s improbable run through the post-season without injured stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will now take the Celtics back home, where they play with more intensity, togetherness and before fans hungry to see an 18th title banner raised to their arena’s rafters.
Love went out with a head injury in the first quarter, forcing Cavs coach Tyronn Lue to juggle his rotations and keep James on the floor longer than he wanted to. The three-time champion played the first 35 minutes without a break and then endured the final eight while nursing a sore lower leg.
Backed by a sea of towel-waving fans wearing white “Cleveland Whatever It Takes” T-shirts, James did just that to push the series to Boston, where he has had some of his biggest moments on the renowned parquet floor.
In 2014, he had 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Game 6 for Miami, which went on to win Game 7 and the NBA title. He also scored 45 in a Game 7 loss for Cleveland in 2008, and now has a chance to boost his stunning resume further if he can get the Cavs to a fourth consecutive Finals.
James has also had some bitter memories in Boston. He lost Game 6 in the East semifinals in 2010 to the Celtics and was soon on his way to joining the Heat.
The game began ominously for the Cavs as Love was forced to leave following his violent collision with Boston’s Jayson Tatum.
Love and Tatum were away from the ball and didn’t see each other until it was too late. They banged heads and both immediately dropped to the floor with Love raising his left arm as if to signal he needed help.
As Love stayed down, the Cavs huddled around him. He was helped off and walked to the bench unsteadily before heading to the locker room for further treatment and evaluation.
The Cavs announced an hour later at halftime that Love was being evaluated for a concussion and wouldn’t return.
The real possibility that James was playing his last game in Cleveland hung over the game — and this city — in the hours leading to tip-off. Everyone had an opinion on what James will do next and that discussion filled the sports talk radio airwaves, bars and barber shops.
The 33-year-old has said several times since coming home in 2014 that he wants to retire with the Cavaliers, but fans are uneasy because he can opt out of his $35.6 million contract this summer and test free agency.
And, of course, he left once before in 2010, bolting for Miami.
James has said he’ll sit down with his family after the season ends to plot his next move, and he’s already being courted in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York who can only dream about adding him to their rosters.
For now, though, he’s only going to Boston.
Celtics: Own a 37-0 record when leading a series 2-0. … Dropped to 1-4 in Game 6s over the last four postseasons. … Coach Brad Stevens praised James for his consistency, and ability to exceed expectations. “Nobody else has what he has on his shoulders playing the game,” he said. “I think that the way in which he’s done that and all of the years now that he’s made The Finals and gone deep into the playoffs, it’s unbelievable.”
Cavaliers: this was the seventh 40-point game for James this post-season. Michael Jordan also had seven, one off Jerry West’s record set in 1965. … James passed Karl Malone (2,062) for sixth place on the career post-season rebounds list.
The Cavaliers avoided elimination and now it’s Golden State’s turn if the teams want to meet in a fourth straight Finals.
It’s still possible.
“You know, Rudy Tomjanovich said, ‘never underestimate the heart of a champion,’” Lue said before Game 6. “And until we’re dead and in our grave, until Golden State’s dead in their grave, it’s not over. And I’m pretty sure both teams are thinking that way.”
James enjoyed watching close friend Chris Paul lead Houston to a dramatic win over Golden State in Game 5. He especially got a kick out of seeing Paul mock Warriors star Stephen Curry with a shoulder shimmy after making a 3-pointer.
“I laughed and smiled like everybody else did,” James said.