If there’s a criticism of LeBron James that stands out, it’s the most complimentary of insults: he’s been so good for so long that we’ve grown accustomed to what he can do. James continues to redefine the game so much that after 14 seasons, it’s easy to take those performances for granted.
Wednesday night’s Game 3 matchup versus the Indiana Pacers was a powerful reminder that James is very capable of doing the impossible and changing history in the process.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been porous defensively for most of the year. During the regular season, they gave up the 11th-most points per game (107.2). They allowed opponents to shoot at a rate of 45.8 percent, a number matched by the 20-win Brooklyn Nets. They’ve continued this trend throughout the playoffs and on Wednesday, allowed the Pacers to score 74 first-half points.
The Cavaliers may be the reigning champs, but there are more than a few detractors that believe this team is in very real danger of being dethroned.
Down 26 late in the second quarter, James did everything in his considerable power on Wednesday night to show those judgments might be premature. He finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists to lead the Cavs to a 119-114 victory, breaking the record for the largest halftime margin overcome in a postseason game.
How does such a considerable lead evaporate so quickly? The Cavaliers certainly did a better job defensively, holding a potent Indiana team to just 40 points in the second half, and just 17 of those in the third quarter. And despite allowing Indiana’s Paul George to rack up 36 points, Cleveland kept the Pacers at 40.0 percent shooting for the game.
But it was on offense where the Cavaliers took full control, slowly chipping away at a 25-point deficit to start the third quarter. The balanced, second-half attack, led by James’ 28 points, included 12 three-pointers from six different players and 21-of-38 shooting (55.3 percent).
With Kyrie Irving struggling with his shot (13 points, 4-of-13 shooting), the key was for James to handle the ball and pick apart the defense; he notched seven of his 12 assists during the comeback. But he also managed to draw the defense completely to the right side of the court, allowing several shooters with space in the left corner.
Here’s J.R. Smith at the start of the third quarter:
This is Kevin Love, capitalizing just minutes later:
With the lead cut to 14, James found Deron Williams in the same spot:
And here’s Channing Frye…
…and Kyle Korver…
While James was feeding his teammates, he found plenty of offense for himself, connecting on four three-pointers of his own, including this one from 31 feet away:
In addition to his nine made field goals in the second half, James drew 12 trips to the free throw line.
The Pacers didn’t do themselves any favors defensively, and they definitely had no idea how to contain James and the suddenly-resurgent Cavaliers offense. When Cleveland went to a smaller lineup on the floor, Indiana head coach Nate McMillan had Thaddeus Young try to guard James, and he had no effect. Lance Stephenson and Paul George also took turns getting burned by the incendiary James.
By the time the Cavaliers had retaken the lead on this shot by Frye, Pacers guard Jeff Teague was on James as the rest of his teammates scrambled around in the chaos:
The two teams would trade baskets over the last five minutes, but the damage was done. Indiana watched limply as James continued exploiting their defensive weaknesses.
In addition to the comeback, James became the third-highest scorer and the seventh-most prolific rebounder in NBA postseason history, all while notching his 17th triple-double in the playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, it was their turn to be on the wrong side of LeBron-history. Now their season hovers precariously on the brink. Soon they’ll be like the rest of us, appreciating his brilliance as mere spectators.
While plenty of critics might consider James’ highlights pedestrian by this point, you probably won’t find many on Indiana’s roster who feel the same way.