INDIANAPOLIS, IN — Perhaps the switch has been flipped.
The Indiana Pacers raced to a 74-49 halftime lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of their first-round series, and the Cavs looked to be on the ropes. If you believed the Pacers were on their way to winning their first game of this series, you can probably join the other 17,923 in attendance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers were rolling.
And then the second half happened. And then LeBron James happened. And then the Cleveland Cavaliers happened. Just when you thought they were out, they pull you back in.
The Cavs outscored the Pacers 35-18 in the third quarter, and then 35-23 in the fourth quarter, to come away with a 119-114 in Game 3, making Sunday’s Game 4 a potential elimination game for the Pacers.
The Pacers began the game by making a lineup shift, moving CJ Miles into the starting lineup and bringing Monta Ellis off the bench. The Pacers moved the ball and found a tempo, and played their best half of the postseason. The Pacers shot 56.8-percent from the floor in the first half, including 11-of-17 from behind the three-point line. Indiana was 14-for-14 from the free throw line, and Paul George had 23 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 21 minutes of action. Lance Stephenson came off the bench and immediately transformed into Born Ready, posting a +20 plus-minus rating in the first half.
“The first half, defensively, I thought we were physical, aggressive and didn’t give them the matchups they wanted,” said Pacers coach Nate McMillan. “And we rebounded the ball and did a good job pushing the ball in transition.”
“I just thought to start the game we were too cool,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. “I thought we were too laid back, and I said it in the time out, two or three times, ‘We’re just too cool.’ That team over there has some pride, and they have great talent and great coaching. So we had to put on our hard hats and get in the fray, because they were fighting and they were battling.”
After Cleveland’s Game 2 win, James noted that the Cavs were “right there on turning the switch on what we really can become.”
While the first half was mostly forgettable, in the second half the Cavs flipped the script and showed the rest of the NBA just how dangerous the defending champs remain. Underestimate King James at your own peril.
Cleveland opened the second half with a three from JR Smith, and before long had cut it to a 77-62 lead. After a Pacers run made it 87-67, the Cavs reeled off 14 consecutive points to cut it to 87-81. After two free throws from Pacers center Kevin Seraphin made it 89-81, with thirty seconds left in the first half, LeBron calmly dribbled the ball up the court, came off a pick from Channing Frye, took one dribble to the left wing, and stopped and drained a 27-foot three-pointer to make it 89-84.
It was an extraordinary shot, the kind LeBron regularly makes appear effortless. But after the ball went in, and as the air was sucked out of the building, James turned and ran down the court with a Cheshire Cat grin plastered across his face, as if he knew something the rest of us didn’t know.
With Cleveland’s other All-Stars—Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving—watching from the bench for the entire fourth quarter, the Cavs matched the greatest second-half comeback in NBA Playoff history. Cleveland got within two, 98-96, on a finger roll from James, tied it at 98 with a dunk from James, and then took a 100-98 lead on another dunk from James. Cleveland held off Indiana the rest of the way, forcing them into long jumpers and making enough free throws to get the win.
According to Lue, the decision to go with the bench players down the stretch was co-signed by Irving and Love.
“That’s what playoff basketball is all about: guys step up,” Lue said. “Channing [Frye] was great, Kyle [Korver] was great, [Deron Williams] was great, [Iman Shumpert] was great. Overall it was just a great team win for us. The first thing Kevin and Kyrie said was, let them go. After they game they were happy and said, it’s not about us, it’s about the team. So, not a big deal at all, especially when you come up with a win.”
More important than who wasn’t on the court for the Cavaliers was who *was* on the court: James. On a night where James finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists; a night when James passed Kobe Bryant to move into third place on the NBA’s all-time Playoff scoring list; a night when James spearheaded the biggest halftime deficit comeback in playoff history; after all of that, and after three NBA titles, four MVP awards, and six consecutive trips to the Finals, maybe we should know better than to be surprised when James pulls off the impossible.
James said he wasn’t aware of the historical gravity of what was happening in the moment. Rather, he was just focused on one thing: Winning. While Indiana’s Paul George finished with a monster stat line of his own—36 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists—it wasn’t enough. And now the Cavaliers are just one win away from sweeping the Pacers and moving on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“I just try to put myself in position to help my teammates win, no matter who is on the floor with me,” James said. ”I try to empower them, I try to make them better, I try to make them believe that we can be great every night, no matter who is on the floor. And for myself, I just don’t settle for being not as great as I can be. It’s not going to result in this every night, but my mind is in the moment, and sometimes certain things like this happen. So, I can’t even really appreciate it. I’ll let you guys write your words about it and we can kind of go from there.
“But the only thing that matters is a win. And that’s what I’m here for.”
Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.
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