CLEVELAND — LeBron James did it again, this time possibly with his team’s season and even his Cleveland career on the line.
His team having gone 7:19 without a field goal and 4:38 without a point, James received an inbounds pass with three seconds left, took two dribbles to his left and nailed a
3-pointer over Thaddeus Young from the top of the key to give the Cavaliers a thrilling 98-95 win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavs, who had a wild on-court celebration that included James hugging rookie Cedi Osman, just as he did following a game-winner in the regular season, now lead the best-of-seven series 3-2, with Game 6 set for Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“As a kid, you always have those three-two-one moments,” James said. “To be able to have one of those moments, that’s what it felt like. I was a kid all over again playing basketball at my house on makeshift hoops.”
James was sensational all night, finishing with 44 points — he was 15-for-15 at the line — 10 rebounds and eight assists in 42 minutes as the Cavs avoided what would have been a catastrophic loss.
The Pacers scored six straight points to tie the game at 95, with Young then forcing a James turnover on the baseline with 26.3 seconds left.
Following a timeout, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo appeared to have a clear path to the hoop, but a trailing James blocked his shot off the backboard and got the rebound to set up his own heroics.
“I just kind of black out in those situations,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said of James’ game-winner. “You prepare so long for those situations. You have the best player in the world on your team. You know if you get the ball to him, he’s capable of delivering.”
Making James’ game-winner even more remarkable was the fact the Pacers had a foul to give, but Young didn’t attempt to do so, in part because he had five personals and in part because James may have been able to get into the act of shooting.
“We had a timeout and a foul to give,” Indiana coach Nate McMillan said, “and we leave here with both of them.”
For his part, Oladipo thought he got fouled on the way to the rim and that his shot hit the backboard before James blocked it.
“I got grabbed even on the way to the rim,” he said. “(The ball) hit the backboard, then he blocked it. ... It was a goal tend. It’s hard to even speak on it. It just sucks, honestly.”
James saw it differently.
“Of course I didn’t think it was a goal tend,” he said. “I try to make plays like that all the time.”
The Cavs, who led by 12 in the third quarter, survived despite another terrible offensive night from Kevin Love (11 points on 2-for-11 shooting, 10 rebounds) and a scoreless one from J.R. Smith (0-for-8), who can be excused because he was largely responsible for holding Oladipo (12 points, 12 rebounds) to 2-for-15 shooting, making Indiana’s leading scorer 12-for-50 over the last three games.
“J.R. was fantastic,” James said. “He’s been fantastic the last two games defensively.”
Kyle Korver made five of nine 3-pointers and scored 19 points for the Cavs, who were 11-for-40 from the field minus him and James, while Domantas Sabonis had 22 for Indiana and Young added 16.
James, though, was once again the story on a night when he possibly could have been playing his last home game with the Cavs had they lost. The four-time league MVP, who is expected to become a free agent at season’s end, was 14-for-24 from the field and hadn’t made a 3-pointer in almost two full games prior to his game-winner.
“He was able to get to the basket and attack the rim way too much,” McMillan said. “He really was able to impose his will.”
Having been outscored by 24 points in the third quarter of the previous three games, including 19 in Games 3 and 4, the Cavs completely flipped the script in Game 5.
James, who had three points in the third quarter of Game 3 and one in Game 4, dominated early on, scoring 11 points as Cleveland started the quarter on a 21-4 run to take a 70-60 lead.
Equally important was Lue’s decision to extend his defense and stop switching on Indiana’s inside players, which made it much more difficult — actually, virtually impossible — for the Pacers to execute their offense.
Indiana committed seven turnovers in the quarter — it had six in the first 6ﾽ minutes — and James scored 15 points as Cleveland won the quarter 32-17 to take an 81-73 lead into the fourth.
“The guys responded,” Lue said, adding his assistant coaches challenged the players to play better coming out of halftime. “That third quarter got us back in the game.”
James got a rare decent rest to start the second quarter, sitting the first 4:15 as Cleveland outscored Indiana by four points, but the Pacers dominated the rest of the quarter.
With the Cavs continually switching high screens, Sabonis and Young dominated inside against guys like Jose Calderon, Korver, Smith and Rodney Hood as the Pacers went up as many as nine before settling for a 56-49 lead at halftime.
James had 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting in the first half, while his teammates had 29 on 10-for-30.
“In that first half, we missed a lot of assignments,” Lue said. “I don’t think we had a sense of urgency in that first half. I don’t know why.”
The Cavs, who started 2-for-11 from the field, looked like they were in trouble when they fell behind 25-15 late in the first quarter, but James went on an 8-0 run to make it a two-point game after one.
James finished the quarter with 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting — all his buckets came on drives to the hoop — while his teammates were 3-15 overall, 1-for-9 on 3-pointers and had nine points.
The 33-year-old, of course, saved his best for last.
“He’s the best,” Oladipo said. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to come out and compete at a high level. I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.”
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