INDIANAPOLIS — Game over, first-round series all but over. And the basketball LeBron James slammed off the court as he walked away from one of his most magnificent performances was the exclamation point.
Did the Cleveland Cavaliers fix what ailed them in a 119-114 comeback from a 25-point halftime deficit against the Indiana Pacers?
Fixing a problem
The only thing fixed for the Cavs on Thursday night was the resolve they fastened to their overwhelming talent. After a first half that called into question the sufficiency on the team of the qualities associated with a champion, the Cavs stormed back to complete a 119-114 comeback for a 3-0 series lead.
It was fitting that it happened as the gold T-shirts thousands of Pacers fans declared to be “one state, united by basketball.”
Seldom has there been a game in which the Cavs were bound together more securely by the speed, power, toughness, wile and will of LeBron James. He had a triple double with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists, as he hauled the Cavs back into the game by their jersey straps. The Cavs gave up 74 points then, the most of any James team ever in the playoffs.
The first half
The Pacers in the first half were making not only jump shots but crowd-pumping, rim-rocking, wham-bam jams that were YouTube-ready from takeoff to violent touch down. Myles Turner bullwhipped a one-hander off an offensive rebound that – Myles Turner? Really? – was like what LeBron James usually does – Seriously, Myles Turner! – does to other guys.
Paul George dunked a long, lazy side out of bounds pass over J.R. Smith.
On and on it went.
Someone would have to pay for this humiliation. The debt collectors were James, who played theentire second half, and some strange customers — Iman Shumpert, J.R.Smith, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Channing Frye. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson were afterthoughts as coach Tyronn Lue stuck with James and the teammates that brought hope.
The first half recalled the free-wheeling days of the ABA’s red, white and blue basketball, and such Pacers as Mel Daniels, George McGinnis and Roger Brown.
These reveries occur in Indiana, a hoops mecca.
Then James reopened new echoes, sinking threes, including one 28-footer, driving to the basket for dunks that left Indiana’s defense with all the cohesion of a pile-up on the turn at the Indy 500, passing to Frye, Korver and Smith for more dead-eye balls to the center of the net.
James has now tied Oscar Ribertson for most 40-pointplayoff trible-doubles,w ith two. His first was in the NBA Finals last season.
“We knew we had to take one of their punches, but it was a flurry, more than we expected,” said James afterward.
Asked about his goals, he said, “My job is to empower my teammates, make them believe every night. I don’t settle, my mind is fresh, and sometimes, certain things just happen.”
With all James has seen and done, even he was ambushed by the dimensions of the comeback.
“There was so much excitement at the end with my teammates all coming down to congratulate each other, ” he said. “The postseason is already tough enough but for us to win like we did tonight, we don’t take that for granted.”
Turn out the lights
Hinkle Fieldhouse tribute lights hang from the ceiling of the lobby of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers play, like beacons to basketball. Here Jacks romped in the beanfields over giants and the vast prejudice of small minds lost the big one.
For decades, Hinkle Fieldhouse on the Butler campus on the north side of town was the shrine of Indiana basketball. The lights recall a gigantic arena built soon after the first peach baskets went up, in which Milan High School, near Cincinnati, became the real “Hoosiers” in 1954. Under those lights shone Oscar Robertson, who led the first African-American team, Crispus Attucks, to the 1957 state championship.
But the greatest player of this generation turned out the lights on Indiana’s brightest hopes Thursday. When will we ever see the like of LeBron James again?