INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James stuck to the old script Sunday.
Again, he bailed out the Cleveland Cavaliers. And again, he sent the Indiana Pacers home for vacation.
On yet another milestone day for basketball’s king, James’ crowning achievement was making the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:08 to play and helping the defending champions hold on for a series-clinching 106-102 victory at Indiana.
“You have to mentally challenge yourself every year and go out and try to do what’s right — putting your body on the line, putting your team on the line and trying to be successful,” James said. “It’s very hard.”
But the four-time MVP makes it look easy. He finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks.
By winning his 21st consecutive first-round game, James broke a tie with Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson and James Worthy for the longest streak under the NBA’s current playoff format. By sweeping a series for the 10th time, James broke a tie with Tim Duncan for the most in a career, according to Elias Sports Bureau. By going 13 of 25 from the field, he pulled into a tie with Kobe Bryant for the fourth highest postseason field goal total with 2,014.
And by holding on for the win, James improved to 52-0 in the playoffs when his team takes a double-digit lead into the fourth quarter.
James considered the milestones a footnote on a day the Cavs blew a 13-point lead and allowed the Pacers to come all the way back and take a 102-100 lead with 1:31 to go.
“They were giving it all they had,” James said. “Obviously, a loss would have ended their season. We just had to weather the storm once again.”
Of course that’s when James took the cue and came to the rescue.
He made the long 3 to give Cleveland the lead, poked the ball away from Young on the next possession, grabbed the rebound when Paul George missed a 3 with 1.9 seconds to go that could have forced overtime and, of course, made 1 of 2 free throws to seal the win.
Now Cleveland takes a seven-game winning streak into the conference semifinals against either Milwaukee or Toronto.
For Indiana, it will go down as yet another tormenting chapter in their rivalry with James.
James’ teams have eliminated the Pacers four times in six years and completed the first-four game sweep in Indiana’s NBA history. Cleveland finished the season 7-1 against the Pacers, winning the last four with a defensive stand, a rare 25-point game from three players, the largest second-half comeback in playoff history and now James’ knockout punch.
Lance Stephenson led the Pacers with 22 points. George had a series-low 15.
“It’s real frustrating to continue on losing to the same team or same person,” George said. “Ultimately, he (James) is who I’m always going to have to see and face.”
The Pacers sure didn’t make it easy, though.
They charged back from a 96-83 deficit with a 7-0 spurt early in the in the fourth quarter. Then they methodically continued chipping away until Young tied the score at 100 and then gave them the lead.
But James answered with the go-ahead 3.
Cavaliers: Improved to 8-0 when taking a 3-0 series lead. … Kyrie Irving added 28 points, Deron Williams added 14 and Kevin Love had 16 rebounds. … Tristan Thompson grabbed 11 rebounds, giving at least 10 in all four games.
Pacers: Have lost five straight postseason games and six of their last eight. … Indiana lost the four games by a total of 16 points, tying the smallest margin in a four-game sweep in league history. … Teague scored 15 points and was the catalyst in the final spurt, including blocking one of James’ shots. …Myles Turner had 20 points and nine rebounds, while Young had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Now the Pacers’ attention turns to the future of George, the 26-year-old All-Star who can become a free agent in 2018. He didn’t drop any hints about which way he’s leaning after the game and there has been rampant speculation he could be traded this summer.
“I’m not at that point yet. Next question,” George said.
Things got physical and painful Sunday.
James stayed down on one knee after taking a shot to the head in the first half. George was writing in pain after taking a knee to the groin. Teague also remained on the ground briefly when he got hit in the head, too.
All three finished the game.
Cleveland gets some extra rest before finding out who it will play in the second round. Indiana embarks on a crucial offseason that could dictate the franchise’s future.