INDIANAPOLIS – So this is what it comes down to for Cleveland, for LeBron James, for the future of the franchise. How many times has James pulled the Cavs’ fat from the fire, how many games has he willed them to wins? On Sunday, he will be asked to do it once more — and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
It was 121-87 in Indiana, a Game 6 beat-down by the Pacers that will send this series the 263 miles back to Cleveland for a Game 7. The momentum the Cavs built in back-to-back wins? Gone, buried under an avalanche of Indy 3-pointers. The confidence Cleveland appeared to sap from Victor Oladipo the last three games? It’s back, a 28-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist effort from Oladipo injecting new life into the Pacers’ franchise player.
Give Indiana credit — it is a scrappy bunch. The Pacers have absorbed some tough losses this series. Game 2, a chance to toss the Cavs into a 2-0 hole, and Oladipo, with the closest defender in Akron, misses a game-tying three. Two nights later, Indy erases a 17-point deficit to win Game 3. Game 5, a chance to push Cleveland to the brink of elimination, and a LeBron James dagger sends the Pacers home losers. On Friday, Indiana responded with the widest margin of victory in franchise playoff history.
Resilience? Look it up — there should be a Pacers logo embedded alongside the definition of it.
“These guys have been doing this all season long,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said. “We’ve been down a number of games at the half and come back and won. We’re not really focusing on the Cavaliers of the past, what people are saying, the outside noise. Just focused on the next game, winning the game and being better than our last game.”
Added Oladipo: “Credit everyone in that locker room. There [are] great men that I play with. Not only great basketball players, but great men of high character, who have been resilient not only on the court, but off the court as well. All of us when we get together, we can be something special. We’re just trying to continue to stay together through it all.”
Are the Cavs together? Game 7 will answer that. James will show up. When Cleveland needed a win in Game 2, James’ 46 points powered one. In a crucial Game 5, James chipped in 44 more. For the series, James is averaging 32.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 7.8 assists, while shooting 53.6 percent from the floor.
He’s done a lot. He may need to do more. The Cavs’ supporting cast is as reliable as cell phones in an elevator. George Hill missed his third straight game with back spasms. His replacements, Jose Calderon (zero points) and Jordan Clarkson (five) didn’t show up, either. Kevin Love has been outplayed by Myles Turner this series. Love’s been outplayed by Turner’s backup, Domantas Sabonis, too.
Does James need more from Love?
“He’s a huge part of our success or our non-success,” James said. “We try to go to him, we want to go to him. Obviously, we can’t make the shots for him. He has to step up and knock those down. But those things you can’t control. You’re going to have games you can make shots, games you can’t make shots. But you have to continue to let him know how important he is to our success. If we want to have any success, either in Game 7 or moving on to the next round, Kev has to be a big part of that.”
But Love — who took a shot to the head on Friday and whose injured thumb may be bothering him more than he’s letting on — can’t be counted on in this series. Hill can’t. Calderon can’t. Rodney Hood can’t. Kyle Korver played well in Games 4 and 5, but was a non-factor (six points) in Game 6.
To advance, James may have to do everything. And even that might not be enough. Thaddeus Young had some good moments defensively against James on Friday. Lance Stephenson, too. James’ post-playing career memoir should have a chapter devoted to Stephenson. Stephenson’s goal isn’t to lock up LeBron — he can’t, no one can without help — but to carve out some space in his head. So he whispers, he flops, he invades James’ space after the whistle.
And he can be surprisingly effective. James tries not to react to Stephenson’s play in the moment — but he makes sure the referees are aware of it later. He tries not to get physical with Stephenson — but he picked up a rare technical foul for shoving Stephenson in Game 4 and was called for a foul for flooring him with a forearm in Game 6.
Asked about Stephenson’s antics after the game, James answered by talking about something else.
Dressing quickly, the Cavs offered the usual clichés. “Game 7, on our home floor, it’s going to be awesome,” Love said. Added James, “It’s win or go home. It’s just that simple.” But this isn’t just any elimination. Win, and Cleveland moves on, faces Toronto and keeps its faint championship hopes alive. Lose, and with James headed toward free agency this summer, the end of an era could be upon it.
Will the thought that he could be playing his final home game in Cleveland run through James’ head over the weekend?
“No,” James said. “The thought that if we don’t play well it will be my last game of the year, that will hit my mind. But I haven’t thought about that.”
He won’t — others will. Fifteen seasons, countless big games, and for LeBron James, here comes another. The Pacers are feisty, have won in Cleveland and simply won’t back down. His supporting cast failing him, James will have to shoulder another incredible load. For his team, for his city and, perhaps, for his future.
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