INDIANAPOLIS — Kyrie Irving has been LeBron James’ teammate for more than three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers — more than three because the first two seasons persisted all the way to the NBA Finals. That’s 290 games together, and goodness knows how many practices and shootarounds, and still there are moments when Irving finds himself amazed at what he sees.
“The question is: Can he ever amaze you guys?” Irving said Thursday night. “Every time he does something amazing, he’s always compared to someone else or other performances. But tonight, that was unbelievable.”
What James did against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the third game of their first-round NBA playoff series would be the stuff of legend if America were inclined to fully appreciate what he delivers on a regular basis.
James’ triple-double powered Cleveland's comeback from 25 points down at the break to a 119-114 victory, the largest halftime deficit overcome in NBA playoff history. The win provided the Cavaliers with a 3-0 series lead and the opportunity to complete a sweep Sunday afternoon.
James scored or assisted on 73 of the Cavaliers’ points, or 61.3 percent of their output. He played every minute of the third and fourth quarters. He led all scorers with 41 points, all rebounders with 13, all passers with 12 assists, all 3-point shooters with a half-dozen made in 12 attempts and, of the seven players who attempted double-figure shots, was the only one who made more than 50 percent.
“He just willed this team, you know,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He just said: I’m going to put you guys on my back, going to make every play, make the right play.”
It was one of the most astounding performances of James' brilliant career, and it underscored the reality of his 2016-17 season: If James is able to drag this crew to another NBA Finals, and especially a championship, it will stand as his masterpiece, his greatest achievement.
This entire season has been a soap opera/horse race/reality show regarding which of James’ inferiors will be presented the league MVP trophy. And certainly James Harden and Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard have enjoyed terrific seasons. James averaged 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists and barely got into the conversation.
Entering the playoffs, though, there is the expectation he should be able to lug whomever is standing nearby to another Finals. It’s not going to be so easy, even if three wins in three playoff games presents some illusion it might be. Because these Cavs have serious limitations that were sorely obvious as they fell behind 74-49 in those first 24 minutes.
“We were just too cool,” Lue said. “I thought we were too laid-back. I said in the timeout two or three times that we were just too cool, and they were just going to come in and lay down.”
Too cool is one explanation. Too old is another. There’s a reason the Cavs have been horrid defensively, especially against pick-and-roll ballhandlers; they were fifth-worst in the league during the regular season on a per-possession basis and the worst in the playoffs through two games.
They’ll tell you it’s injuries, and that’s not totally exaggerated because wing Iman Shumpert hasn’t been entirely himself and J.R. Smith missed a lot of the season. But there was a lot of truth revealed as the Cavs allowed 57 percent shooting from the field and 59 percent on 3s during the first half.
Of everyone the Cavs put on floor, pretty much everyone they could have put on the floor, only Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving entered the league this decade. This decade has been going on for more than seven years, now.
There was nothing wrong with adding Korver or Deron Williams late in the season, but adding them both tacked more years onto a roster that already looked like it was assembled by James Naismith. If you want a clear picture of how creaky the Cleveland bench was as the reigning world champs were being buried deep in the first half, consider not one of Korver (36), Channing Frye (33), Richard Jefferson (36) or Shumpert reached 10 full minutes on the court — and every one of them was at least minus-10. Korver hit two 3-pointers and still was a minus-18 in 9:44 of PT.
“They definitely jumped all over us,” James said. “We knew we’d have to take one of their punches, but they gave us a flurry — more than we expected.”
The Pacers in the first half looked more energetic, more dynamic, more athletic. In the second half, they looked … young. They gagged. There’s no other way to put it.
Well, there is one other way: They got LeBronned. He scored 28 points in the second half, and he exerted such an overwhelming force that he vacuumed the defense away from Korver, Frye and Williams, who combined for five 3-pointers in the second half. They might be defensive liabilities in later games, but here the Indiana offense shut itself down by taking the pace out of its approach and, in some instances, by running away from the proper play.
Frye and Korver played so well Lue left out Irving and Kevin Love for the entire fourth quarter. James said, “Our bench definitely got the game ball tonight. Channing, Shump, D-Will, Kyle — those guys came in and gave us huge minutes. We needed everything from them.”
In order to win a championship, they likely will need more from those players than any has left to give. They still have LeBron, though, which means it’s not out of the question that they could all find themselves still hooping in early June.
“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, try to make them better, try to make them believe that we can be great every night.
“Myself, I just don’t settle for being not as great as I can be. It’s not going to result in this type of line like this every night. When my mind is fresh and my mind is in the moment, sometimes certain things like this happen. I don’t know. I can't even really appreciate it. I’ll let you guys write your words about it and go from there.”
Those of us who were watching know what we saw.
How many understood?