On the night LeBron James passed Kobe Bryant to become the third leading playoff scorer in the history of the game, he didn’t have a whole lot to prove. And in the first half, it was as if the Cavaliers would have one of those nights where the only thing they were interested in proving as a team was that they could make things as hard on themselves as they wanted to, thank you very much. There were eight turnovers, and Kyrie Irving had made 3/12 shots and contributed three of those turnovers. He wasn’t exactly defending, either.
Only Tristan Thompson seemed interested in the playoff game going on around him, and the Cavs found themselves down 74-49. Seventy-four points. LeBron James could have wrapped things up, played a half-hearted third quarter and let Irving either shoot himself out of his poor play or drown trying. It was the easiest route to a fourth quarter off and a reset before Game 4 on Sunday afternoon. That’s not the path LeBron James took, and on a night where he was hurt a lot more than he was helped by Irving, and even Kevin Love, he did the damn thing himself.
Said coach Tyronn Lue after the game: “LeBron willed us home.”
Said another Cavs official: “Isn’t it crazy how he can surprise you after all these years?”
He finished with 41 points on 27 shots in 45 minutes. He pulled down 13 rebounds and handed out 12 assists. He blocked two shots and altered others and played with physicality. He beat guys off the dribble, he dunked as hard as ever, and he hit threes from the outside. He even missed free throws so you’d know it was really him. It was unreal, and he carried Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, and Deron Williams across the finish line with him.
Deeper into the fourth quarter it got, with the Cavs getting closer, and closer, and closer to closing the gap that Indiana had built. Finally, they broke through. Incredibly, the lineup not only went on the run but sustained it. This is not a young team, and it was not a young lineup, and they kept up the energy. It was perhaps exactly what General Manager David Griffin had in mind when earlier in the day he explained the design of this Cavs team to Fear the Sword: “We went all in on a team designed for the playoffs. We’re not young, we’re not athletic, we’re not long. We’ve got a very fine margin for error. So if we don’t play really hard or if we’re not together, we’re not very good. It’s by design, because the thought process is when that much talent is highly motivated and you get days off in between and all that, you can absorb the fact that you’re older and not as athletic or energetic on an 82 game basis.”
This group had the shooting that LeBron needed around him, and James was able to do the rest. Deron Williams did some ballhandling, and James settled for some threes, but the late surge from the Pacers never came. Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith came back late in the fourth quarter, but for the most part this was a comeback engineered by LeBron James and four bench parts. Let’s not forget, this is a bench that has been justifiably maligned for a lot of the season. Is this something Lue would have asked of them in January? No. But the Cavs have Friday and Saturday off, and they’ll come back Sunday with the opportunity to either close things out or have an elimination game at home early next week.
The Cavs didn’t need this one. LeBron James wanted it, so they got it.