CLEVELAND — The issue has plagued LeBron James in the past, leg cramps occurring sometimes in the most crucial moments of the NBA Finals. He has demonstrated the ultimate care for his body, maintaining his form in the regular season and summer and undergoing precautionary tests during the season for any potential minor injuries.
Fifteen NBA seasons in, and James appears to be in prime shape. All around him, everyone had prepared questions about his future with the Cleveland Cavaliers if a loss happened in Sunday’s Game 7. It was in the air inside Quicken Loans Arena, from security guards to fans, wondering if this would be seven games and out. But it took the entire seven, took a Finals-esque performance from James to eliminate the Indiana Pacers 105-101. He had poured in 45 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals and played all but five minutes, receiving critical contributions from Tristan Thompson, George Hill and Kevin Love.
This is a battered Cavaliers team searching for health, for continuity, and requiring James to post statistics assuredly unsustainable for a full playoff run: nearly 42 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in four victories; 34.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists overall in the series. Yes, James spent himself against the Pacers.
“I’m tired,” James said Sunday evening. “I want to go home.
“Indiana pushed us to the brink. This was a good test on my body, but it’s why you train year-round.”
Make no mistake, James’ success so late in his career is remarkable. And even teammates wonder how.
“His motor is unreal,” Thompson said. “He’s got a Lamborghini motor. If I could find out what remedy he has, I would definitely take it.”
James had made a vow Sunday, telling his close confidants in a first-quarter timeout: “I’m playing the whole game.” His goal required extended time sitting on the bench next to coach Ty Lue to gather himself during breaks in the action. He began missing free throws in the second half, including two of three in one stretch, perhaps the best sign that fatigue had set in. And then James exited for the first time and went to the locker room with one minute left in the third quarter. The Cavaliers said during the game that James suffered from “minor cramps.” When James had been asked if he wanted IV fluids for the cramps, he declined, saying it was a “minor injury.”
Indiana executives had reason to be proud of the Pacers’ run this season, a 48-win season out of nowhere, a rising All-Star in Victor Oladipo and a promising franchise cornerstone in Myles Turner. They had respectable efforts throughout the roster: Darren Collison. Thad Young. Domantas Sabonis. Lance Stephenson. In the end, even Pacers executives privately wondered: LeBron James, in Cleveland, in Game 7? Good luck.
Nonetheless, these Cavaliers are onto the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals — a deeper version of the Pacers with two All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and an improved reserve unit and supporting cast.
For Lue, the most significant coaching decision likely came when he inserted Hill with seven minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the third quarter, when the Pacers had eliminated a double-digit deficit to take a 59-58 lead. Hill has dealt with a strained back, missing Games 4, 5 and 6. His MRI in between Games 3 and 4 revealed no major issue, but soreness has limited some of his comfort and movements. He spent most of the pregame warmups Sunday taking short-range shots, passing the ball to teammates at the foul line. At halftime, there had been no expectation for Hill to play — and yet here he was.
Hill stabilized the game, producing 11 points, six rebounds and three assists in 19 minutes, while Thompson played his first substantial minutes of the series and posted 15 points and 10 rebounds. For Cleveland, there must be more reliance on the four players who started in their past three Finals runs: James, Love, Thompson and J.R. Smith. Hill exited the arena Sunday in positive spirits, and his health looms as a key to the Cavaliers’ success against Toronto.
“That’s the Tristan we know and G-Hill staying professional,” James said. “Tristan continued playing four-on-four, five-on-five in our off days for the players who aren’t playing. G-Hill was being aggressive, and we needed every bit of it.”
James stared off into the upper levels of the crowd here late in Sunday’s Game 7, a courtside fan who had aimed for a handshake with him during the game hollering at James in the game’s final seconds. His breaths were heavy, his face seemed emotionless. The Cavaliers’ stiffest test yet this season comes starting Tuesday night in Toronto, and off James went into the Cleveland night with his body pushed to the threshold. How much more does LeBron James have left this postseason?
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