BOSTON (TNS) — A year ago to the day, the Cavaliers celebrated their third consecutive Eastern Conference championship in TD Garden.
But that title seemed almost expected with their Big Three of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving still healthy and intact.
This season nothing came easy. The Cavs were wracked by injuries and internal turmoil, by Irving's trade demand that the Cavs accommodated, by coach Tyronn Lue's leave of absence to address health issues and by roster upheaval at the trade deadline.
It was fitting that Sunday's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals was the same kind of struggle the Cavs had fought through all season. The play was rugged, the shooting percentages for both teams low.
But the Cavs hung on down the stretch for what was likely their most fulfilling conference crown of King James' time in Cleveland.
James scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, six in the final 2:45, and George Hill hit a driving reverse layup with 1:16 remaining as the Cavs pulled out an 87-79 victory before a stunned Boston Celtics crowd.
The fourth-seeded Cavs advanced to their fourth consecutive Finals and will face the Golden State-Houston winner on Thursday at the Western Conference site.
The Cavs were without Kevin Love, their second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, who suffered a concussion in a head-to-head collision with Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum in Game 6. Jeff Green made just his second start of the playoffs in place of Love.
The Celtics had been 10-0 at home this postseason and 37-0 in series when they have taken a 2-0 lead. But the Cavs defied all the odds in a crazy, dramatic and improbable season.
The spotlight was on James, both for his otherworldly performances in Game 7s and the possibility that he could have been playing his last in a Cavaliers uniform.
James had either scored 40 points or notched a triple-double in his last seven elimination games. His teams were 5-2 in Game 7s and had won the last five, three of those when he played for the Miami Heat. James hadn't lost in a Game 7 since the 2008 East finals, when he scored 45 points but the Celtics won by five.
He did not disappoint.
Playing on a sore right leg injured when teammate Larry Nance Jr. bumped into him in Game 6, James played all 48 minutes. He poured in 35 points, making 12-of-24 field goals and 3-of-8 3s, with 15 rebounds and nine assists.
Green added 19 points and eight rebounds, Smith 12 points and four rebounds and Tristan Thompson 10 points and nine rebounds.
Tatum led the Celtics with 24 points and seven rebounds, Al Horford had 17 points, Marcus Morris 14 points and 12 rebounds and Jaylen Brown 13 points and six boards.
The Celtics' 79 points were a playoff low against the Cavs.
James knew he wasn't going to be able to do it alone against the balanced Celtics. And James' supporting cast didn't start to provide support until the Cavs fell behind 35-23 with 8:52 left in the second quarter.
The Cavs finished that quarter on a 16-8 run as Green scored six points, Smith hit his first field goal, a 3-pointer, and Hill and Thompson contributed field goals, and James added three points.
The Cavs, who draw energy on offense and defense from their 3-point shooting, went 1-for-14 from 3-point range to start the game, made 2-of-17 in the first half and 9-of-35 for the game.
Horford poured in 14 points in the first half, ignited with 2:58 remaining in the first quarter when Nance subbed in for Thompson. Horford scored eight points before Nance picked up his third foul in a span of four minutes and was taken out.
The Cavs took a 53-50 lead in the third quarter on a Green 3, marking only the second second-half lead change in the series (the other came in Game 2). They pushed that to 56-51 as James fed Thompson for a layup and Green added a free throw.
In the third period, the Celtics' shot selection was poor as they made just 5-of-20 from the field and 0-for-7 beyond the arc. The Cavs led 59-56 going into the final quarter.
The Celtics came out of the break with more energy and regained the lead at 61-59 on a Tatum jumper and a Horford slam for an and-one.
The Cavs trailed 43-39 at halftime despite losing seven turnovers (five by James) that led to nine Celtics points. They finished with 13 turnovers (eight by James).
The Cavs' first-half issues fell on their guards, so important in their three home victories. Hill, Smith and Kyle Korver went scoreless in the first quarter. Korver missed his first four 3s and went 1-for-6. Smith took only one shot in his first 14 minutes. Hill was not as aggressive driving to the basket as Lue had hoped, although Lue had vowed to constantly remind him.
Presumably attempting to change their luck in TD Garden, the Cavs didn't wear their Thom Browne suits James bought them to signify unity to the arena.