CLEVELAND – LeBron James walked down a dimly lit hallway on Wednesday night, another playoff win in his pocket, another crisis — if a 1-0 hole in the first round can be called that — averted, and we are reminded that someday James will prove mortal. Someday, James won’t be able to summon a 46-point effort to lead his team to a narrow 100-97 win over the Indiana Pacers. Someday, James’ transcendent talent won’t be enough to mold his team’s 32nd starting lineup together on the fly. Someday, he will face adversity and bow to it.
That day wasn’t Wednesday, and judging by the ease in which James shredded Indiana’s defense, it won’t be any day soon, either. All eyes were on James this week, a passive, 24-point performance in a Game 1 loss yielding questions about which James would show up in Game 2. Cavs coach Ty Lue said James needed to be more assertive — and he was Wednesday night, ripping off 20 points in the first quarter.
“It was just a feel,” James said. “Coach Lue called the first play for me and it went down, so we went back to it and I was able to get another one. I just felt like I was in a really good rhythm, so I tried to see how long I could stay in that zone and just try to make a mark on the game early on, especially after the way we started in Game 1.”
Said Lue: “I think he did a great job of being aggressive, attacking the basket early and setting the tone for our team.”
James dominates, Cavs win. But here’s what makes the 20,562 that crammed into Quicken Loans Arena queasy: They almost didn’t. James’ brilliance built an 18-point first quarter lead … that Indiana whittled to seven in the second. The Cavs held the Pacers to 27.3 percent shooting from three … and Indy was still an open — a wide open — Victor Oladipo three from tying the game with less than a minute to play.
“I thought [the loss] was more us, and what we didn’t do,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “After tonight, we feel we can play with this team.”
That’s right. Indiana — with a roster of castoffs and a franchise player (Oladipo) in his first series as one — heads home emboldened. With a win in their pocket and another just a few errant threes away, the Pacers leave Ohio confident that this is a series they can win.
“I can’t wait [to get home],” Pacers center Myles Turner said. “We’re really looking forward to it and I think we’re in a great spot.”
James stopped the Cavs from falling into a 2-0 hole, and to keep Cleveland out of another, he’ll have to do it again. Indiana is for real. Oladipo is a force offensively, tough to slow with a head of steam, athletic, even acrobatic at the rim. There’s a symmetry to Indiana’s rotations; Oladipo comes out, in comes Lance Stephenson, an Oladipo Lite. Turner needs a break, Domantas Sabonis — a versatile, rebound-vacuuming, three-point shooting big — is ready to replace him.
The Cavs are searching for lineup stability, and the good news Wednesday is that they may have stumbled upon some. Kyle Korver — battling foot issues and limited to four minutes in Game 1 — was inserted into the starting lineup with J.R. Smith, and James found the floor spaced in front of him. Korver drilled four threes, Smith played solid defense, and Cleveland has a starting lineup it can move forward with.
“They put shooters out on the perimeter and LeBron was going to put his head down and go to the basket,” McMillan said. “We didn’t do a good job tonight of keeping the ball in front of us.”
James will need to be, well, James as the series shifts to Indiana, and Game 2 proved he still had it in him. But against a formidable first-round opponent, James will need more. More from Rodney Hood (five points in Game 2), who must be more assertive. More from Jordan Clarkson (two points), who needs to provide more punch off the bench. More from George Hill, who attempted just three shots.
Another playoff game, another brilliant performance, and James’ legend continues to grow. On the road, against a team brimming with confidence, the challenges will, too.
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