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INDIANAPOLIS — If any two teams were going to give us the lead-in to one of the biggest playoff comebacks in NBA history, let it be these Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers, two clubs that appear at their best when engaged in mercurial play and unexpected outcomes.
The Cavs can get away with it; they’re the defending champs. The Pacers? They’re a game away from watching their season end.
The Cavs at least have LeBron James to lean on when things get … well, when they go down 26 points.
Behind LeBron’s brilliant 41-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist night, the Cavaliers were able to craft a comeback for the ages in the Game 3 win, roaring all the way back from a 72-46 deficit to a 119-114 victory. James even did his best work without ineffective teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love down the stretch, as Cavs coach Tyronn Lue went with a cast of aging reserves to surround James in the fourth quarter of the 119-114 conquest.
The Pacers, struck by a spirit that put them swiftly in control of Game 3 in front of their home crowd, fell hard in the second half. The team managed just 40 points during that term, sputtering in the same places that seemed so warm just one half prior.
Paul George led the Pacers with 36 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists. He missed 18 of 28 shots in the loss, though, and was neither able to get in James’ way defensively nor make Cleveland sweat with clutch play of his own. Other Pacers looked tired or timid as the pace tightened, and James worked through a series of screen-and-rolls bent on allowing him the chance to survey the defense.
The attack, especially once his legs hit their stride in the third quarter, was unrelenting:
James only sat for a five-second blow over the final three quarters of the game. Save for a series of missed free throws, it hardly showed. This is how he brought his Cavaliers to the lead, midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3:
Working alongside reserves Deron Williams (acquired as a waiver wire hire in March), Kyle Korver (traded for in January) and second-year Cavalier Channing Frye, James was able to build upon his devastating work as a roll man from Monday’s Game 2 win. In Game 3, James ran as if an All-Star supporting cast was altogether unnecessary in the days before the title defense really hits in the second, third and fourth rounds:
LeBron looked, and was, unstoppable. That’s deadening enough for Indiana. What will hit worse, as the Pacers work through what may well be a sleepless night following the loss, is the realization that they were allowed to have their fun for long stretches of Game 3.
“Here we are, up [25 points] to start the second half with a chance to put our foot on their throat, and we came out relaxed,” George explained after the loss. “We didn’t pressure up on the ball and we didn’t make anything tough. I thought they had a stretch where they were just walking into wide open 3-pointers and we can’t do that.”
“At some point,” George concluded, with his team down 0-3 to the defending champs, “we have to nip this in the bud.”
Prior to what could kindly be described as the worst loss in its franchise’s history, Indiana was unhurried and patient from the start, “getting the ball up early and exploring,” in George’s recollection.
“No thought process, everything was happening,” George said. “It was natural.”
George’s team eased the game into a pace close to its liking prior to the insertion of Lance Stephenson into the lineup, after a 16-15 Indy start to things.
The reserve combo guard, whose body language rubbed George the wrong way during a mini-Game 2 meltdown, immediately set to stirring the drink upon his mid-first-quarter inclusion. Stephenson hit a 3-pointer on his first possession and did not look back, offering a spirited first half performance, notching eight points and a team-high +20 through his first 13-plus minutes of play.
Lance wasn’t the only bench addition to pay off. Big forward Kevin Seraphin continued his string of strong late-season play with a nine-point, three-assist first half. George cooked on both ends, point guard Jeff Teague appeared to have settled himself, and if Lance was going to have one of his Lance Games, then what was to get in the way of Indiana earning a Game 3 win after two unsettling, too-close losses in Ohio?
Isn’t this how playoff series — especially ones featuring defending champions who are skipping through the spring months — are supposed to work?
Not ones featuring LeBron James, apparently. If the man is going to put in the minutes, in a season that saw him lead the league in that category at age 32, he’s going to have to leave an imprint.
He’d have to. Irving missed nine of 12 shots to start the game. Love missed six of his first eight, and J.R. Smith four of five. Tristan Thompson (who worked less than a minute in the deciding fourth quarter) looked completely spent, even by the time Myles Turner decided to show up for the postseason:
… and, as it’s been for the better part of the last three months, nothing seemed to be working defensively.
Time to make the offense work, then.
“The best way to build offense is to defend,” LeBron insisted after the game. “The first half was not us. They definitely jumped all over us. We knew we’d have to take one of their punches, but they gave us a flurry. More than we expected.”
Good thing James had Williams, Frye and Korver — ages (nearly) 34, 33 and 36 — to rely on.
Irving and Love, for whatever reason, had to leave the lineup. Kyrie was pulled with the Cavaliers down 19 points in the third quarter. Love was taken from the lineup two minutes later, with Cleveland down 13, just a few days after playing the hero in his matchup with Mr. Stephenson.
In their absence, Williams would run a sensible show mainly by getting out of LeBron’s way, allowing him to finish a team-high +17 mark. Frye and Korver would spend the bulk of just about every Cavalier timeout discussing ways to bring the off-ball fire, prior to peeling off each other for a series of open looks. They combined combined for 25 points in the win, two short of what Love contributed as the starter of Game 2.
“It’s why this team is built this way,” James reminded the media after the win. “It was a challenge this year because of all the injuries,” and coach Lue’s third-quarter insertion of “very cerebral basketball players” in Frye, Williams and Korver acted as the tipping point.
“They’re not going to shy away from the moment,” James said.
The bench certainly had its share of well-heeled support from the side, in Love and Irving.
“The first thing Kevin and Kyrie said was, ‘Let ‘em go. Let ‘em go,’” Lue said after taking Game 3.
Let ‘em go and finish the game, while two stars who would be franchise players on just about any other club hooted from the sidelines in an Indianapolis arena that just kept getting quieter and quieter. It was a necessary performance. Not just for the win, but for the team’s sense of self.
There probably isn’t a switch to flip for Cleveland; this team won’t become a capable defensive unit this deep into things. But even the Cavaliers know they should be able to stay in front of Lance Stephenson. They know that Kevin Seraphin can’t extend Cleveland’s season. The champs should be able to communicate better on defensive arrangements out of unplanned dead-ball situations, and they shouldn’t let their defensive frustrations carry over to offense. Shouldn’t the Cavs be used to such vexation, in that particular area, by now?
Maybe Cleveland, the team that came back from 3-1 down to the 73-win Warriors 10 months ago, thrives in times of storm and stress. Maybe the squad will have to win its second title after letting opponent after opponent line up to punch themselves out.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, because LeBron?
LeBron James scored or assisted on 73 points, the most in a playoff game in his career.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 21, 2017
James wasn’t thinking about his big night (“I can’t sit up here and say that”) during his big night.
“I didn’t know that it was the biggest comeback, or whatever,” he said. (According to the Associated Press, it was actually the third-largest comeback in playoff history, but the largest halftime deficit ever overcome in a postseason game.)
What is clear is that, in its august history, this league has yet to see a conductor quite like James — so much so that scads of journeymen and ring-hungry veterans circle the Cleveland front office every summer, winter, spring and fall looking for a gig alongside LeBron. The duty-bound James, who came into this league feeding Darius Miles and Ricky Davis, feels compelled to hold up his end of the bargain.
“I try to empower them,” he said of his teammates, all sprung toward Cleveland from disparate outposts. “Try to make them better, try to make them believe that we can be great every night.”
James was as uncluttered to his approach to explanation, following the win, as he was in finding his way toward the front of the rim in the second half.
“When my mind is fresh, when my mind is in the moment, sometimes things like this will happen,” he said.
We’ve noticed, LeBron.
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