CLEVELAND — LeBron James woke up Sunday morning expecting to play all 48 minutes of Game 7 of the first-round series between his Cleveland Cavaliers and the Indiana Pacers. During the second quarter, he was caught on television saying as much to his agent, Rich Paul, in his courtside seat at Quicken Loans Arena.
But with exactly one minute remaining in the third quarter, James not only checked out of the game for the first time, he headed back to Cleveland’s locker room, accompanied by Cavaliers trainer Steve Spiro. General Manager Koby Altman soon joined him.
Cleveland already had seen an 11-point halftime lead evaporate with James on the court. Now here he was, going to the locker room because of cramps with the Cavaliers holding a one-point lead, with no indication of how long James would be gone.
Suddenly, this long, strange trip of a season for these Cavaliers was going to be extended or ended by the misbegotten group surrounding James these days. Given how the first 35 minutes had gone — not to mention the previous six games of this series and the 82 in the regular season — Cleveland’s chances didn’t feel great. The specter of two months of discussion of where James would be playing next season loomed.
Yet it somehow worked out splendidly in the 105-101 victory. In the 4:35 James spent on the sideline, the Cavaliers went on an 11-4 run, getting two baskets from Kevin Love and six free throws from George Hill, Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr.
That pushed Cleveland’s lead to eight when James returned. The Cavaliers maintained an edge the rest of the way — and pushed off the discussion of James’s future by at least another week or so.
“We’ll take this win, and we’ll worry about the next round when we get there,” James said.
“My guys stepped up.”
That is not what people were expecting to say when this day started. It has seemed as if James has been taking on the Pacers by himself over the past two weeks, with Sunday — he finished with 45 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals — being no exception. His supporting cast has flailed, and the Cavaliers have never missed Kyrie Irving more.
With that as the backdrop, Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue started Sunday’s game with the players he knew he could rely on: James, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Love and Tristan Thompson.
Those are the only five players remaining from last year’s NBA Finals team, and the four — minus Korver — left from Cleveland’s title team two years ago. The Cavaliers also wore their black jerseys — a nod to the last time this team played in Game 7 of a playoff series, the final game of the 2016 NBA Finals.
“I just think in Game 7, go with the guys who’ve been here, who’ve been through it all and know what it takes,” Lue said.
They all delivered at least one moment. James was a given. Love struggled throughout but buried those two shots when James was sitting. Smith made three three-pointers, while Korver made a brilliant pass to hit James for a layup with 30.2 seconds left to push Cleveland’s lead back to six points.
The biggest surprise, though, was Thompson. Buried on the bench until the second half of Game 6, Thompson was told by Lue on Saturday morning that he would be starting the biggest game of the season.
Thompson responded with his best game of the season, finishing with 15 points, 10 rebounds (including five offensive), a steal and a blocked shot in 35 minutes.
“It’s part of being a professional,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to stay ready at all times.”
Hill, meanwhile, not only didn’t play in Games 4, 5 and 6 because of back issues but sat out for the first half of Game 7. But when Cleveland fell apart early in the third quarter, Hill entered the game — and never came out.
He wound up playing the final 19 minutes; the Cavaliers were afraid to take him out in case his back froze up. He played great, though, finishing with 11 points, six rebounds and three assists, providing crucial ballast to a team that desperately needed it.
“Lue just said, ‘Stay ready, we’ll use you if we need to,’ so I just stayed ready,” Hill said. “It’s all mental, though.
“There was no way I wasn’t going to try to fight with these guys.”
The Pacers probably will look back on this series with regret. Games 2, 5 and 7 here, as well as Game 4 in Indianapolis, were all coin flips. The Pacers lost them all. Indiana outscored Cleveland by 40 points in the series and by 58 points in second halves.
In the end, though, Indiana just couldn’t close — typical of a young team facing a veteran one in the playoffs. That the veteran team had at its disposal the greatest player in the world — and one of the greatest of all time — didn’t hurt its chances.
But the young team ended James’s 21-game winning streak in first-round series — including five straight sweeps — and pushed his team to the brink James had to post the minutes and production typical for him in the Finals — not the Eastern Conference’s first round.
The Cavaliers move on to face the Toronto Raptors, a team James has dominated for years.
Given how the series against the Pacers played out, however, it’s worth noting James doesn’t have the same kind of supporting cast as he has in the past. And with the return of Fred VanVleet to Toronto’s lineup, it may not be the same Raptors team, either.
By the time he reached the podium late Sunday afternoon, though, James was too spent to think about that.
“I’m burnt right now,” James said with a smile. “I’m not thinking about Toronto right now. I’m ready to go home.”
When James woke up Sunday morning, there was a chance he could be going home for the final time this season — and, quite possibly, for the final time with the Cavaliers. It looked that way again late in the third quarter, when he disappeared into the locker room.
But this long, strange trip of a season for the Cavaliers isn’t over quite yet.