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

Mixing shots like a boxer, LeBron James delivers knockout blow in pivotal Game 5

LeBron shoots 14-of-24 from field, 15-of-15 from free throw line

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CLEVELANDLayup. Layup. Layup. Layup…

LeBron James went at the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 Wednesday night like a boxer delivering body blows.

Layup. Three-footer. Layup. Dunk. Layup…

Through sheer brute force, James imposed his will again and again against Indiana’s defense, bull-rushing the rim against or around single defenders, the other Pacers sticking close to shooters James might otherwise have found with passes.

Layup. Finger roll. Layup. OK, an 18-footer. And then…

James took the inbounds pass with three seconds left, dribbled quickly, then went up for his shot as he drifted right to left. He was 25 feet from the basket on a night when nearly everything he got came right at the rim. But sticking with the boxing analogy, it was as if all that pummeling to the gut got Indiana’s head to drop. And that’s when James delivered the knockout punch.

The Cleveland star’s 3-pointer at the buzzer lifted the Cavaliers to a 98-95 victory Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena and a 3-2 lead over the Pacers in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series. James finished with 44 points on 14-of-24 shooting and an uncharacteristically flawless 15-of-15 from the line.

It was a forceful, methodical assault on the Pacers’ defense and, more generally, on their ambitions to survive and advance. James was relentless, a blunt instrument that often prompts the Michael Jordan supporters in GOAT debates to sneer at James’ powerful substance over aeronautic style. His blocked shot-slash-uncalled-goaltend of Victor Oladipo’s last-gasp layup on Indiana’s final possession fit nicely in there, too, another nod to James being bigger and more physically dominating than most of his opponents.

But the 3-pointer to win it? That was as skilled and artistic as anyone who’s ever played the game, and it had James thinking some seriously old-school thoughts himself.

“Being a kid, you always had those ‘3, 2, 1 moments,’” James said. “That’s what it kind of felt like, like I was a kid all over again, playing basketball at my house with makeshift hoops and my socks as a basketball. And making that [crowd] noise.”

There was no simulating the reaction of the fans at the Q, though. The explosion of noise as James’ shot swished through was as loud as anything the NBA has heard in years. His flair for the dramatic at both ends fended off the Pacers’ earnest attempt to steal the outcome and saved Cleveland from a late-game stall (the Cavs’ last field goal before James’ game-winner came with 7:19 to play).

There was a whole lot of basketball obscured or overshadowed by James’ big stats and highlight moments, including Cleveland’s cleaner, more straightforward defensive performance after halftime. Coach Tyronn Lue said he and his staff implored the Cavs to end a bad habit of third-quarter sags and got the response defensively they were seeking.

For Indiana, Domantas Sabonis (22 points off the bench) and Thaddeus Young (16) picked up the slack when Oladipo had another cockeyed shooting night (2-for-15). And for all the analysis and breakdowns, with James’ 14-of-24 on one side of the ledger and Oladipo’s shooting on the other, the result owed just as much to Cleveland’s 26-of-27 free throw performance vs. Indiana’s 21-of-27.

Five games into the series, there is as much mutual respect between the Cavaliers and the Pacers as there is chafing. The Cleveland guys might not love Lance Stephenson’s antics, but they appreciate how determined Indiana is — game by game and minute by minute — to play hard and not quit. The Indiana guys, meanwhile, are getting up-close, repeated black-and-blue contusions from James and looks at his squadron of deep threats.

A decision to avoid getting hurt more by the likes of Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and others was what had Indiana taking its medicine over and over from James’ rim runs.

“You can run double teams at him to try to get the ball out of his hands,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “[But] he’s an excellent passer, he’s a willing passer. With the shooters on the floor, he basically picks you apart when you play that type of defense.

“What he is doing because of spreading the floor, at times we’re not in our gaps. He sees the paint as wide open. … If you collapse on the ball, he finds the 3-point shooters. What he was doing tonight was basically, he put his head down and attacked the basket.”

As for the buzzer-beater, McMillan mostly was annoyed that his team had both a timeout left and a foul to give, and used neither to disrupt Cleveland’s rhythm with a mere three second remaining.

“We had two things we could have used in that situation,” he said. “We leave here with both of ‘em.”

James’ performance Wednesday, on top of his 46-point effort in Game 2, has made it clear that the Cavaliers will go only as far as he can drag them. It’s not the best model for success, James surrounded by an unproven, under-performing supporting cast.

But as he reminded Indiana in Game 5, the Cavs have him and the Pacers do not, and that’s plenty for a round or two.

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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