INDIANAPOLIS — LeBron James sat in the designer suit and shoes each Cleveland Cavaliers player wore Friday night in an act of camaraderie, and around James everyone prodded him about his team’s collapse and his supporting cast’s role in it. Players had coordinated the suits, and they helped each other postgame inside the Bankers Life Fieldhouse locker room: Cedi Osman requested a teammate to fix his arm-sleeve button, while James fixed his gray tie over his white shirt with the help of his smartphone. Off the floor, these Cavaliers were taking the measures to come together as one.
On the court Friday night, these Cavaliers were disjointed in a 92-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of this Eastern Conference first-round series. James had 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, nearly willing Cleveland to victory for the second consecutive game, but he had defensive lapses along with several teammates that are unacceptable in the postseason. Kevin Love scored just three of his 19 points in the second half; George Hill’s back tightened up in the fourth quarter; J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood missed 13 of their 15 3-point attempts; and Tristan Thompson remains benched by coach’s decision, not for any off-court reasons.
For the first time in his 15-year NBA career, James trails 2-1 in the first round of the playoffs. He trails a Pacers team powered by external assumptions of a tanking mission after their summer trade of Paul George. For the first time, James is nearing the brink of a first-round elimination, and there’s no changing his suit now.
“Think I’m going to throw my teammates under the bus?” James said Friday night. “I’m not about that.”
There was a pause when asked about his teammates’ performances.
“There’s a lot of game to be played.”
James has played MVP-caliber basketball for most of the season, played all 82 games to achieve a personal goal despite a normal protocol to rest a few games. He’s kept his body sharp at age 33, even having precautionary MRIs, such as when he turned his ankle in November. All season, teammates received the message: James is in this with you. And yet, the Cavaliers’ playing style — isolation-driven — has several players privately questioning where they can find their place and rhythm for playmaking opportunities. James is a basketball genius, a generational great. For a team that stockpiled new parts as the season went on, instead of maintaining continuity from previous Finals teams, playing with James has been an adjustment at times.
It is beautiful in spurts, such as a 57-40 first-half lead built upon the drives and kickouts from James to shooters such as Love and Hill. Over the course of a game, however, the Cavaliers lost their disposition and James’ passes came in tighter spaces and in waning moments. With Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. receiving their postseason crash-course lesson, there may need to be more trust levied upon veterans such as Hill and a former champion in Thompson.
“We’ve got to get ourselves ready to play,” Cavaliers coach Ty Lue said. “They were tougher than us in the second half.”
The Pacers are a free-flowing team flourishing on emotion and team play. On a night when Victor Oladipo scored 18 points on 5-of-15 shooting, a new hero emerged in the heart of Indiana: Bojan Bogdanovic. Thirty points and seven 3-pointers came from the hands of Bogdanovic, a most special Pacers postseason performance in recent years, all while focusing on his main defensive assignment: James. They stifled Cleveland’s offense in the second half, and Bogdanovic supplied clutch shot after clutch shot.
James has faced deficits to this Pacers franchise before this series — down 2-1 in the 2012 conference finals and 1-0 in the 2014 conference finals — but here it comes in the first round and on the heels of a third straight game in which Cleveland appeared to be a most vulnerable higher seed, along with Portland. He has been down and out before, and the 3-1 comeback against Golden State in the 2016 Finals will forever be his calling card in adversity.
“This situation … I’ve seen it,” James said. “Every game is a must-win.”
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