LeBron James is still the king.
If there was ever a time in which that statement was in question, James silenced the critics in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 3 matchup against the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night.
Not that many were questioning that statement in the first place, but some have been wondering just how much longer James can continue to be one of the best players in the game in his 14th season in the NBA.
With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sitting on the bench, James led the Cavaliers back from a 26-point deficit to give his team a commanding 3-0 series lead. The Pacers held a 74-49 lead at halftime and seemed as though they were in position to steal a game on their home court.
Instead, James scored 28 of his 41 points in the second half to help the Cavaliers match the largest comeback in NBA playoff history. No matter what defense the Pacers threw at James, he worked around it or found an open teammate for a shot. In the end, James finished with his 17th career playoff triple-double after recording 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.
“LeBron willed us in,” Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said. “He willed us home. I think 41, 12 and 13 and played the whole second half. That’s what playoff basketball is all about. You gotta be willing to sacrifice and it lay it on the line to win a game and that’s what he did for us.”
James has shown that when he operates as the point guard and has shooters around him, he’s very dangerous given his abilities as a passer. He took what the defense gave him on Thursday night and put his team in a position to win. On one sequence, he was out in transition and faked Monta Ellis to his right and charged in for an uncontested dunk.
James did everything you’d expect from him and, at times, it seemed too easy for him. He even finished the game by going 6-of-12 from three-point range. He scored or assisted on 73 points, which is the most in a playoff game in his career. If he wasn’t scoring or setting up his teammates, he was providing lock-down defense and altering shots.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Cavaliers’ comeback for the Pacers was Irving and Love didn’t play a single minute in the fourth quarter. The bulk of the fourth quarter minutes went to James, Deron Williams, Channing Frye, Kyle Korver and Iman Shumpert. Frye scored 11 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter and hit a dagger with 54.8 seconds left to put the Cavaliers up by seven points.
“Our bench definitely got the game ball tonight,” James said. “Channing, Shump, D-Will and Kyle. Those guys came in, gave us huge minutes and we needed everything from them. We were on point defensively and offensively we knew exactly what we wanted to get to and that was a big win for us.”
Afterward, Lue was questioned why he opted to leave two of his best players on the bench in the fourth quarter. With his team rolling behind James’ brilliant play, it was a decision that he said was difficult but one that was encouraged by Irving and Love.
“Looking at Kyrie and looking at Kevin, they were like, ‘Let them go. They were playing well,’” Lue said. “I had every intention to keep those guys in as long as they were playing well, but Kevin and Kyrie didn’t have a problem with it at all. That’s what playoff basketball is all about. … After the game, they were happy and just said, ‘It’s not about us, it’s about the team.’ Not a big deal at all especially when you come out with the win.”
Outside of a few flashy plays from their starters, the Cavaliers proved to be able to win with contributions all over the court. For maybe the first time all season, they have everybody healthy for the playoffs. It’s going to take that effort if they’re going to return to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive time.
With the Cavaliers proving to be successful in coming back from a 26-point lead, it begs the question if the Pacers have mentally checked out of the series. A loss of that nature can be mentally draining and disrupt a team’s confidence level.
While the Cavaliers appear to be on the verge of a first-round win, they are flawed at times. They have lost large leads late in games. They have shot terribly at times from the free-throw line and have been badly outrebounded.
No matter what the problem has been, it always seems as though James can rescue them and turn on his extra gear to will the team to victory. For now, those issues can be worked on, but they don’t have much time with a trip to the Finals looming in the coming weeks.
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