LeBron James has been to seven straight NBA Finals and eight overall, but a tiny bit of doubt crept in Sunday before the Cavaliers defeated the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of a first-round series at Quicken Loans Arena.
“It felt like a Game 7,” he said after improving to 5-0 in such games. “Your mind is thinking like, ‘OK, besides the two I played in The Finals,’ you start thinking like, ‘Is this it? Could this be it?’
That’s just human nature. And then the other side of my brain was like, ‘Let’s go make something happen. Let’s go. That’s what you’re here for. You’re here to make plays. You’re the leader.’”
The four-time league MVP and three-time NBA champion made plenty of plays in the series, scoring 167 points — a 41.8-point average — in Cleveland’s four victories, which came by three, four, three and four points.
Now, with just one day in between — the Cavs had won 14 straight games in the first round prior to this year — James will have to start making plays again tonight at 8 when the fourth-seeded Cavs open Eastern Conference semifinal action against the top-seeded Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre.
All this after averaging 41.1 minutes in the first round and not coming out of Game 7 until he cramped with a minute to go in the third period, not to mention leading the league in minutes played while appearing in all 82 games of the regular season for the first time in his 15-year career.
“A lot of guys, when they get to the playoffs, they’re not used to playing that many minutes,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “Being in a high-intensity atmosphere, it’s kind of hard for those guys to perform. (James) does a great job of taking care of his body and a great job of conditioning himself for these type of situations.”
It would help the Cavs’ chances against Toronto considerably if James gets more help in the second round than he did in the first — underachieving Kevin Love was the only other Cleveland player to average double figures in points at 11.4 — and there are reasons to think that may indeed happen.
In winning two of the teams’ three regular-season meetings — 132-129 at Quicken Loans Arena on March 21 and 112-106 at home on April 3 — the Cavs averaged 122 points, shot .548 from the field and made 28-of-54 3-pointers (.518).
There also was a 133-99 debacle at Toronto on Jan. 11, but the Cavs — for better or worse — are a much different team than they were that night, having added George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood at the trade deadline.
Of course, those players, along with guys like Love, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and Jeff Green, are going to have to play much better against the Raptors than they did against the Pacers.
Hill, who missed three games due to back spasms, came up big in Game 7, playing the last 19:12 and finishing with 11 points, six rebounds and three assists, all of which were crucial. His 9.3 scoring average, in fact, ended up being the third-highest on the team in the first round.
James leads the 2018 playoffs with a 34.4 average, while Love’s 11.4 was 58th through Sunday among all players who have appeared in the postseason this year.
“I had to get a little rhythm going and things like that — get my motor going and stay ready — but it worked out great after I relaxed after the first play,” veteran point guard Hill said of a turnover seconds after entering the fray. “Just calm down and play basketball.
“I didn’t know when my name was going to be called. T-Lue said, ‘Just stay ready. We’re going to use you if we need to, and if we don’t have to we’re going to sit you there.’ I was just staying ready.”
Korver and Smith both had their moments against the Pacers, good and bad.
In Games 2, 4 and 5, all Cleveland wins, Korver averaged 16.3 points and made 13 of 26 3-pointers. In Games 1, 3, 6 and 7 — only Game 7 was a win — he averaged 2.3 points and was 3-for-14 from deep. Included were scoreless outings in Games 1 and 3.
Smith helped hold Victor Oladipo to 12-for-50 shooting in Games 3 through 5, but averaged just 8.6 points in the series. Included were five-point outings in Games 2 and 3 and a scoreless night in Game 4.
Clarkson was even worse, scoring 31 points in the entire series, 12 of which came in the first half of Game 4. Subtract his 5-for-5 shooting from the field and 2-for-2 performance on 3-pointers in that stretch and he was 8-for-35 from the floor and 0-for-12 from deep over 6 1/2 games.
Nance was average in his best moments, Hood was timid and didn’t attempt a shot in Game 7 and Love, save for a 16-point first half in Game 3 and eight-point fourth quarter in Game 7, was largely ineffective.
Clarkson and Nance had no playoff experience before the Indiana series, while Hood appeared in 11 games off the bench for Utah last season.
Regardless, somehow, someway, the Cavs found a way to advance — forgotten man Tristan Thompson had 15 points and 10 rebounds in Game 7 in his first start of the series — and will now face a Raptors team that won 59 games in the regular season.
“It was a great series,” James said. “We had some ups and we had some downs. But, I don’t know, we move onto the next series. It’s a good test for us, especially this ballclub.”
The Cavs defeated Toronto 4-2 in the 2016 conference finals and swept them in the 2017 conference semifinals.
In the latter series, Cleveland won by an average of 15.3 points (116.3-101.0), with James becoming the first player in league history to score at least 35 points in every game of a sweep.
Factor in the Cavs’ last two regular-season wins over Toronto — Cleveland trailed 79-64 at halftime in the March 21 meeting — and an argument can be made that they are in the Raptors’ head.
This Toronto team, however, is much better than the squads Cleveland eliminated in the previous two postseasons.
Guards DeMar DeRozan (26.3 ppg, 4.8 apg) and Kyle Lowry (17.2 ppg, 8.3 apg) were solid as the Raptors defeated Washington in six games in the first round, as was center Jonas Valanciunas (13.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg).
Factor in guys like Serge Ibaka, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl and Fred VanFleet and Toronto will be far from an easy out.
In fact, it might take another superb effort by James and quite a bit more production from his teammates to do so.
It also will require much more productive third periods. The Cavs were outscored by 11 points in that quarter in Game 3, by eight in Game 4, by 15 in Game 6 and by nine in Game 7.
Down as many as 14 and by 11 at halftime of Game 7, the Pacers started the third period on an 18-4 run and appeared to be on the verge of taking over, but the Cavs were able to regroup, just as they did numerous times over the course of a rocky regular season.
“We just kept pushing,” Love said. “We’ve been a resilient team all year, and that third quarter has been pretty elusive for us. We’ve been taking big hits, but we’ve been able to fight back. And when we take a lead in the fourth quarter, we’re pretty good.”
- James needs eight rebounds to become the seventh player in league history to reach 2,000 in the playoffs. He needs one steal to become the first player to reach 400 in the postseason, and by appearing in three more games will pass Tony Parker (226) for the fifth-most playoff appearances in league history.
- Love averaged 17.0 points and 12.0 rebounds against the Pacers in the regular season. Subtract the 34-point loss in Toronto and those numbers jump to 20.5 and 13.5.
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