Playoffs 2018 East First Round: Cavaliers (4) vs. Pacers (5)

Cleveland Cavaliers give LeBron James just enough support in Game 7

Supporting cast delivers as James logs Herculean 45-point, 43-minute effort

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CLEVELAND — With each blast of the horn over at the scorer’s table, players would check in, players would check out. And still, LeBron James remained on the court, determined to play all 48 minutes if that’s what it took to win Game 7 Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena.

James even was caught by the cameras at one point saying just that – “the whole game” – to someone courtside. No one familiar with the Cleveland star’s relentlessness and stamina doubted he could do it. Given the stakes, and how essential he’d been to the Cavaliers’ performances through the first six games of the Eastern Conference first-round series against Indiana – logging 245 of a possible 288 minutes – it almost felt inevitable.

Besides, his team’s theme for this postseason is “Whatever It Takes,” so y’know, truth in advertising and all that.

Then, in the game’s 36th minute, that whole narrative changed. Before long, the most watchable player in the league for his astounding, explosive and varied exploits on the court had people fixating on and monitoring his minutes while he sat.

Boy, did James sit too. After heading to the locker room at the start of his unexpected breather, he planted himself in a chair on the Cavaliers bench and didn’t budge. Not for timeouts, when players who aren’t in the game traditionally stand at the back of the huddle. Not for the mini celebrations, either, when a teammate would drain a 3-pointer and other Cavs would rise from the bench, arms jubilantly held high.

James sat. Sat with his towel and his orange slices for 4 minutes 35 seconds in all, from late in the third to the 8:25 mark of the fourth. With the time between the quarters as bonus sitting.

What made it possible was the help James got in those pivotal minutes from the unlikeliest of sources. Which is to say, anyone other than himself.

James had been, by necessity, a one-man gang in the series before Sunday. He had averaged 40.7 points in Cleveland’s three victories – 46, 32 and 44 – and by series end still hadn’t gotten a single 20-point performance by any other Cavs player. People had begun likening this crew to the 2007 Cleveland team that, despite limited talent and modest contributions, somehow made it to The Finals on James’ broad back.

Then came this comparative revelation in Game 7. When James finally sat down, Cleveland led 75-74, its 14-point edge in the second quarter a faded memory. When he returned? The Cavs were up 86-79. A lineup of George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green not only had avoided disaster, it had extended the lead.

The Pacers and their coach, Nate McMillan, knew something precious had slipped through their fingers.

“You have an opportunity to make a run. He’s resting. And we didn’t capitalize off of that,” McMillan said. “The start of that quarter, we had four or five possessions we didn’t score. We switched our lineups quickly, but by that time … they built on that lead. And LeBron came into the game.”

With some rest better than no rest, James returned to do what he does. He scored seven more points, including a backdoor layup with 30 seconds left that all but clinched it. His stats line when it was over was more individual magnificence: 45 points on 16-of-25 field-goal shooting and 11-of-15 from the foul line, with nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals.

But for all his trouble, in his 43:25 on the court, James was minus-2. While he sat, the other Cavs were plus-6. It was the first time all series that their leader ran a deficit and the Cavaliers won.

Cleveland had gotten a glimpse of what was to come soon after tipoff. James got the Cavs’ first four points but teammates scored the next 15. The most surprising contribution came from Tristan Thompson, the big man nearly forgotten in the series besides 14 minutes in Game 6 garbage time. He’d been relegated to the early 5-on-5 scrimmages for deep reserves like Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic and Kendrick Perkins who otherwise were riding pine.

“Just staying in rhythm, because you never know,” Thompson said. “It’s a long playoff journey. I remember our first year together [in 2015, Kevin] Love goes down against Boston. I get thrown into the starting lineup against Chicago. … If I’m not on the court, I’ve got to be able to cheer my teammates on from the sideline, be there mentally and keep guys locked in and focused.”

I’m not thinking about Toronto right now, until tomorrow. I’m ready to go home. I’m tired, I want to go home.”

Cavs forward LeBron James

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue not only played Thompson in Game 7, he started the 6-foot-10 Canadian and played him his longest minutes (34:54) all season. The 27-year-old chipped in six points and seven rebounds before the game was 10 minutes old, Cleveland leading 26-16 by that point. He finished with 15 and 10, and one ferocious block of Darren Collison’s layup attempt that Thompson swatted into the stands.

James had other helpers in pushing his personal mark to 13-0 in first-round series and five consecutive victories in Game 7s (5-2 overall). Point guard George Hill had missed the three previous games with back pain but checked in with 7:12 left in the third and stayed on the floor the rest of the way. Hill scored 11 points, hit nine of his 11 free throws and gave Cleveland another ball handler and perimeter defender. That helped counter the 53 points scored by Indiana’s starting backcourt, including 30 by Victor Oladipo (25 after halftime).

Love had struggled so much offensively, he was bound face serious blame if Cleveland had been ousted. Instead, Love sank four of his seven 3-point attempts and finished with 15 points. J.R. Smith had 11 points and pestered Oladipo defensively.

The Pacers admitted they were caught off-guard by Thompson’s appearance and impact. Already spread thin fending off James and accounting for his 3-point shooters, dealing defensively with Thompson that led to another of Indiana’s poor starts, from which they eventually dug out in the third quarter.

But outscoring Cleveland by 41 points overall in the seven games, 704-663, offered no more solace to the Pacers than the winning the popular vote did to Democrats in November 2016. They were interested neither in stats technicalities nor pats on the head. They got an unfortunate draw as a No. 5 seed having to face James and the East’s three-time defending champs. They nearly did what no conference team has done to James – blocking his path to the Finals – since Boston in 2010.

They aren’t done, either.

“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” Oladipo said. “No one thought we were going to be here. No one. Not one person. But us in the locker room. I feel like we’ve earned our respect from everyone.”

Meanwhile, at the crossroads of win or go home, the Cavs’ “other guys” stepped up. Sooner or later, you’d think an unreliable supporting cast would start to feel a little self-conscious, with James lugging them wherever they manage to go. Sooner or later, you’d expect them almost to be guilted into contributing.

“Whenever you’ve got the best player in the world on your team,” Thompson said, “giving it everything he’s got … for me and the younger guys, we’ve got to pick it up. He’s giving 100 percent, we’ve got to give 120. He’s going to war for us every night. We’ve got to do the same thing.”

The next battle comes Tuesday, when Cleveland faces No. 1 seed Toronto in the conference semifinals without home-court advantage. The level of help the Cavs’ role players provide from one game to the next is an unknown, same as how the team copes plunging immediately into the next round.

The past three years, going 12-0 in the first round and 36-5 in the East bracket, there always was some rest-and-recovery time between series. Not now.

“I’m burned right now,” James said when asked for a look ahead. “I’m not thinking about Toronto right now, until tomorrow. I’m ready to go home. I’m tired, I want to go home.”

He looked and sounded tired, too. Despite (cough) all the unexpected rest.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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