LeBron James is prone to saying that “Game Seven” are the two best words in sports, an occasion when the lines dividing success from failure are at their thinnest.
It’s when the weight and pressure help create unforgettable moments, when the stakes help define legacies. It’s when stars, like James, don’t even look at the bench, when they pour every ounce into one game with the clearest possible outcomes.
Win and your season lives. Lose and it dies.
Sunday marked the first of two days of Game 7s in the conference finals, the first time that’s happened since 1979.
Before the Warriors and Rockets decide the Western Conference champion on Monday, James added to his legacy, playing all 48 minutes in Cleveland’s 87-79 victory Sunday night in Boston — the Celtics’ first loss at home in the postseason.
It will be James’ eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals. The same information put another way: James’ teams have won 24 straight playoff series in the Eastern Conference.
“We have an opportunity to play for a championship. That’s all that matters,” James told reporters.
Without sitting a single second on the bench, James dragged a team that was missing Kevin Love to a concussion. He carried a group of role players who, with few exceptions, spent most of Game 7 clanking shots off the rim while James did everything he could to keep things close.
He scored 35 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. He had nine assists and eight turnovers. He either scored or assisted on 70% of Cleveland’s made field goals.
Had the Cavaliers come up short to Boston, James, who can become a free agent this summer, could’ve shifted the power balance of the NBA by signing elsewhere, whether with Philadelphia, with the Lakers or anywhere else.
And, his exit would’ve certainly been more likely had his team failed to compete for another NBA title.
And that’s the true power of Game 7s — especially deep in the playoffs. They don’t just shape the present. They change the future.
In recent history, there’s no better example than the 2016 playoffs that shaped the Warriors’ current roster.
Down 3-1 to Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals, Golden State won three straight games to get to the Finals. Stephen Curry followed up Klay Thompson’s huge Game 6 with 36 points and seven three-pointers to end the series — and Durant’s tenure in Oklahoma City.
He probably would’ve ended up on another team had the Warriors’ season not ended with a Game 7 loss to Cleveland, with James walking off the court in Oakland with the Finals MVP trophy in one hand and the NBA championship in the other.
It was the greatest victory of his career, winning a championship for title-starved Cleveland and cementing his place among the best players of all time.
It also meant James’ teammate in 2016, Kyrie Irving, would need to go elsewhere if he wanted the change to achieve similar greatness. One year later, he was traded to Boston.
And had the Warriors not been eliminated, they probably wouldn’t have signed Durant as a free agent.
Sunday’s Cavaliers win in Boston might end up keeping James in Cleveland. But it’s not as clear right now how Monday’s result will shape the future in the West.
If the Rockets don’t advance, it’s hard to ask for wholesale changes because one of the main actors in the series, Chris Paul, might not be on the court.
His strained right hamstring has improved enough since Game 5 on Thursday night that he’s been upgraded to questionable for Monday night, though Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said that could just be wishful thinking.
“I don't think he's tested it at all. He's just getting treatment and trying to be sure it calms down and everything,” D’Antoni said during a conference call Sunday. “Again, the doctors and trainers are working on it 24 hours a day almost. They will, tomorrow morning, reevaluate it again; probably tomorrow afternoon again. I don't have to see anything — if I get the nod from the trainers, Chris and the doctors, he'll be ready to go.
“Probably if any of those three disagree, he's probably not going.”
Without Paul, the Rockets would miss a player with plenty of Game 7 experience. He played in one with the Charlotte Hornets and five with the Clippers. With Los Angeles, Paul beat the Grizzlies in Memphis during a Game 7 — a road win so unlikely that at least one of the players on the team needed to go suit shopping after the game because he didn’t pack for the next round.
He did it again two years later, defeating the Warriors in the first round in a series interrupted by the tape recordings that eventually forced Donald Sterling to sell the team.
A year later, Paul fought through a different hamstring injury to stun the Spurs in the final seconds of Game 7 before he and the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Rockets, losing in a Game 7 in Houston in the next round. And in his final game as a Clipper, Paul struggled against the Utah Jazz in a Game 7 at Staples Center.
Paul’s time with the Clippers had probably already reached its expiration date before he was eliminated by the Jazz, but had the Clippers survived, they could’ve made a better argument to try and keep him.
A loss on Monday to Golden State wouldn’t diminish what the Rockets and Paul have accomplished this year: having the league’s best record and taking the defending champs to the brink of elimination.
If the Warriors lose, though, the team will definitely need to reexamine its bench, which hasn’t been much of a factor this series.
The challenge for the players involved will be to ignore those possibilities and lock in on the moment, one filled with pressure and finality that happens only a handful of times in a career.
It’s different from anything else.
“You wake up that morning and it's like, ‘This is it,’” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “This is the culmination of everything that's happened the last couple weeks.”