With the pivotal Game 5 of the first-round series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers hanging in the balance in the closing seconds, LeBron James did what he’s been doing for 15 years: took over, saved the day, and delivered his team a desperately needed victory.
James hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Thaddeus Young, providing a thrilling ending to a heartstopping fourth quarter and giving the Cavaliers a 98-95 win over the visiting Pacers to take their first lead in the best-of-seven series at 3-2. The Cavs will now look to close out the stunned Pacers back in Indianapolis in Game 6 on Friday night.
Asked by TNT’s Allie LaForce what he told his teammates in the huddle before the Cavs’ final possession, James recalled a simple message.
“Just give me the ball,” he said. “Give me the ball. They had a foul to give, so I wanted to go quick so they couldn’t give up that foul, because we had no more timeouts. So I was able to turn and get to my spot.”
If the sequence felt familiar to you … well, you’re not alone.
“It was like deja vu for a regular-season game we had versus Minnesota, where I got a block on the other end and then the game-winner,” James said.
Then again, maybe you’re thinking of that time James did nearly this exact same thing in the playoffs, just about nine years ago.
LeBron Game 5 vs. Indiana, 2018
LeBron Game 2 vs. Orlando, 2009 pic.twitter.com/ygP4zqTMNf
— LeRob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) April 26, 2018
The silver lining, Pacers fans: LeBron’s Cavs lost that series to the Orlando Magic in six games. (Then again, they weren’t one win away from closing out at the time.)
The Cavs were in position to win it on that final-second shot because of James, too. On the previous Pacers trip, James took the defensive assignment on Victor Oladipo, knowing Indiana’s All-Star would have the ball in his hands in a game tied at 95. Oladipo drove on James, using a lefty in-and-out dribble to get James leaning the wrong way before bursting into the lane and, with half a step on LeBron, elevating for a layup to give the Pacers the lead.
As it turned out, half a step wasn’t enough:
Unless, of course, it was, because it sure looked like Oladipo might have gotten the ball onto the glass before LeBron swatted it, which would’ve made it a goaltend and two points for the Pacers:
LeBron: "I definitely thought it was a goaltend. Of course."
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) April 26, 2018
If nothing else, it would seem to be close enough — in the closing seconds of a tied game in a tied playoff series — to get the refs to review the play. And yet, despite the league’s replay rules allowing referees to review “situations in which they are not reasonably certain whether a goaltending or basket interference violation was called correctly during the last two minutes of the fourth period and during all of overtime,” that didn’t happen here because goaltending wasn’t called on the floor in the moment. So: block stands, Cavs ball. (The Milwaukee Bucks feel your pain, Victor.)
Then again, maybe this was some cosmic “ball don’t lie” by the basketball gods after the way the Pacers got possession on the previous play.
With the score tied at 95 and 33 seconds to go, LeBron went to work in pursuit of a go-ahead bucket. He drove on Young, but the veteran power forward muscled him up along the baseline, forcing James to pick up his dribble under the basket. As LeBron tried to pass to the far corner, Young swiped down and knocked the ball loose; it bounced up and hit James on the arm before going out of bounds, a costly turnover that gave the Pacers the ball back with 26.3 seconds to go and a chance to go for the win.
Except the ball didn’t hit LeBron before it went out of bounds, because it went out of bounds after Young jarred it loose:
It ended up not mattering – but Thad Young clearly knocked the ball out of bounds before it went off LeBron in the Cavs final possession before LeBron’s game-winner.
Shocking it wasn’t reviewed pic.twitter.com/IKc5gh8bEy
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) April 26, 2018
That play could have been reviewed, according to the review rules, since it was a “called out-of-bounds play […] involving doubt as to which player caused the ball to go out.” But the refs didn’t review it, so the turnover stood and the Pacers got the ball.
Whether or not you think those two missed calls cancel out probably depends on which team you’d prefer to see win this series. Either way, James rendered the argument moot with a bit of last-second magic for his first postseason buzzer-beater since 2015 in Chicago.
It was a brilliant end to another brilliant evening for James, who’s been essentially the only reliable source of offense Cleveland’s been able to muster in this series. He lived at the rim all night long, bulldozing his way to the paint time and again en route to 44 points on 14-for-24 shooting from the field and a perfect 15-for-15 mark at the foul line, to go with 10 rebounds, eight assists, a block and a steal in 42 minutes of work.
Veteran sniper Kyle Korver continued to be James’ primary running buddy, scoring 19 points on 6-for-11 shooting (5-for-9 from 3-point range) with six rebounds in the win, which saw the Cavs prevail despite shooting just 41.3 percent from the field as a team.
The Pacers came out of the gate strong, shaking off their Game 4 loss to take a double-digit lead in the first quarter behind balanced scoring and a strong defensive effort. As ever, though, James was there, coming up with three straight drives to the front of the rim to finish the quarter down 25-23. The Pacers would push ahead again, though, with Young continuing to erase Kevin Love while providing complementary buckets, and reserves Domantas Sabonis and Lance Stephenson pitching in on the offensive end to send Indiana into halftime up 56-49 despite 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting by James.
After a season full of third-quarter struggles, Cleveland bucked the trend by coming out of intermission on fire, with James scoring or assisting on every basket in a 17-3 run that turned a seven-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead midway through the quarter. The Cavs seemed to catch the Pacers off guard by changing up their pick-and-roll tactics, cranking up the heat with traps when Oladipo was running the play while dropping back to corral other ball-handlers. The shift short-circuited the Pacers’ offense; Indy shot just 5-for-16 from the field in the third, needing a third-quarter buzzer-beating triple by Stephenson to get back to within single digits entering the fourth.
Despite Oladipo’s continued brick-laying — he finished the game with 12 points on 2-for-15 shooting, though he did add 12 rebounds, four assists and a steal — the Pacers stayed in the fight thanks to the constant energy of Young (16 points, 8-for-9 shooting, six rebounds) and the interior scoring of Sabonis, who was Indy’s best player on Wednesday (22 points on 8-for-12 shooting, five rebounds and two assists in 33 minutes off the bench) and bounced back from missing a layup that would have tied the game with 1:09 to go by knocking down a foul-line jumper after the Cavs trapped the ball out of Oladipo’s hands with 33.6 seconds left.
All series long, the Pacers have been right there — an open Oladipo jumper away from a 2-0 lead, a couple of miscommunications on Korver 3-pointers late in Game 4, seconds away on Wednesday — and yet, they still find themselves one game away from summer vacation. It doesn’t quite seem fair, given how frequently they’ve looked like the better team in this series. But fair’s got nothing to do with it this time of year.
“Series ain’t over,” said Oladipo, who is now 12-for-50 from the field since Game 2. “We still got a game on Friday. The series ain’t over. You gotta win four games for the series to be over, right? So we’ve got a chance to win on Friday. I don’t think anybody is discouraged or upset. Obviously, it sucks — we want to win, it sucks, it definitely sucks — but we play on Friday, and it’s a big game, because it’s the next game, and we [can] give ourselves a chance to come back here and play for a Game 7. So we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”
To get back to Cleveland, though, the Pacers are going to have to beat LeBron James in a closeout game. Well, nobody said the NBA playoffs were easy.
As has been the case throughout the series, that the Cavs needed this kind of performance and this kind of late-game heroism from James this early in the postseason doesn’t seem to bode well for Cleveland’s chances of making a fourth straight NBA Finals. Still, this result’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative, and with the East feeling as shaky and open as it’s been in years, being the only team that employs LeBron Freaking James still just might give you a leg up on everyone else.
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