LeBron, Cavs Still Trying to Figure out Who They Are Before It's Too Late

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IApril 23, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates following Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, Sunday, April 22, 2018. The Cavaliers defeated the Pacers 104-100. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — It was after midnight when LeBron James strolled down a darkened hallway beneath Bankers Life Fieldhouse, on his way to the Cleveland Cavaliers team bus.

This was not a bus, mind you, under which any teammates would be thrown. It was simply one that would deliver James and those teammates to the airport—under much better circumstances than the alternative.

"You never want to go down 3-1 to anyone, whether it's the first round or you're fortunate enough to get to the Finals," James said after the Cavaliers beat the Indiana Pacers 104-100 Sunday night to even their first-round series at 2-2. "It's too hard."

James' efforts against the Pacers through four games have been Herculean, out of necessity. He's played more than 41 minutes in three of the four games, including a timesheet that logged 46:09 on Sunday night. Both games here in Indiana, James had to play the entire second half without a break.

"I would love to get a couple of minutes here or there to keep me fresh," James said. "Tonight didn't give us that opportunity."

No, it didn't. And it just makes you wonder, with better teams than the Pacers looming ahead, what will be required of James to carry this group of role players and non-stars up the mountain to his eighth consecutive Finals?

"We're there to help," Jeff Green said. "We're just off right now. We're missing a lot of shots we normally make, but we'll turn it around and the help will be there for him."

It was there Sunday night in the form two rapid-fire blasts of lightning, in the midst of another blow-for-blow, fourth-quarter slugfest with the Pacers. "Bang-bang threes," James called them. And it was all the daylight he needed.

Coming out of a Pacers timeout—after Lance Stephenson had wrestled James into a jump ball and held it aloft for the raucous crowd, like a trophyJames dissected the Pacers defense and found the two openings that would propel him back into this series.

With the Cavs trailing 93-91 with just under four minutes left, James spotted Kevin Love and Kyle Korver on the back side of the defense by the Pacers bench with a two–on-one advantage.

"So I already knew," James said, "that one of the two was going to get a good look."

James skipped the ball to Love, who drew the defender and skipped it to Korver, who knocked down a three-pointer for a 94-93 lead.

After a driving, left-handed layup from James out of a pick-and-roll with Green, Victor Oladipo hit a mid-range jumper to keep it within one. Then James sized up the defense and called for an action the Cavs have used to free up Korver in the past.

Love darted toward James, as if to set a screen for him, and then quickly rerouted and screened for Korver, who stepped behind the three-point line and knocked down another one for a 99-95 lead with 2:29 left. It was Korver's fourth three-pointer of the game, good for 18 badly needed points.

"His four threes were huge," James said. "We needed every last one of them, obviously."

It felt like the interview room at the Fieldhouse was filled with an enormous sigh of relief from James, who had grown testy in recent days with repeated questions about whether he had enough help from his teammates to win this series.

"What are you guys looking for? You want me to throw my teammates under the bus?" James said after a 92-90 loss in Game 3. "No, I'm not going to do that. I'm not about that."

Now, the latest fascination in a tumultuous season for the Cavswith James approaching another date with free agencyis what their identity will be in the fourth quarter of playoff games when every possession matters.

Will James have to do it all? And if not, will the help come from the new players acquired in a massive trade deadline overhaulor, as was largely the case down the stretch on Sunday night, from the few players left who have been in these moments with James before?

"It was a close game down the stretch," coach Tyronn Lue said. "So I wanted my veterans, the guys that I know."

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

It was a remarkable admission from a playoff coach who is still trying to figure out what he has…on April 22.

Still, even with George Hill out with back spasms, Lue got some badly needed production from the other newcomers earlier in the game. Jordan Clarkson finally found his offense, with 10 of his 12 points in the second quarter, and Larry Nance Jr. contributed hustle play after hustle play as the Cavs built a 16-point lead in that same period.

Among GM Koby Altman's deadline acquisitions, only Rodney Hood (six points on only two shots) continued to struggle.

"We all have pretty well-defined roles," Nance said. "Obviously, we're all Robins to LeBron's Batman. On any given night, we have to be ready to give our support."

It was interesting, then, that with the game hanging in the balance for the final six minutes, Lue had Clarkson, Hood and Nance mostly on the bench. He decided to go down swinging with James, Love, Korver, Green and J.R. Smith.

In similar circumstances in the fourth quarter of Game 3, the Cavs finished by launching 12 three-pointers among their final 14 attempts. James went 4-of-5, and Love made one falling out of bounds late in the game. The other six were missesthree by Smith, one by Hood, one by Love and one by Clarkson.

Early in the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Cavs once again looked like a team trying to figure out how to play together in training campnot a team trying to stroll through the first round on the way back to the Finals.

Trailing 83-82, James got the ball to Nance on a pick-and-roll, and Nance threw it out of bounds when Clarkson failed to cut to the corner. Another botched possession followed when Nance and Hood got mixed up on a pick-and-roll, resulting in another turnover.

A bad isolation possession ended with Clarkson's missing an eight-footer, leading to a putback at the other end by Thaddeus Young for a 91-89 Indiana lead. Lue had seen enough, subbing Korver for Clarkson in his latest attempt to find a lineup that could finish the game with James.

"A lot of times, when teams are going to load up on Bron, more often than not he's going to make a miraculous play—whether it's scoring the basketball or distributing the basketball," said Love, who struggled again, with five points on 2-of-10 shooting. "You just have to be ready, knowing the ball is going to find its way to you."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 22: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives against Bojan Bogdanovic #44 of the Indiana Pacers in the second half of game four of the NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 22, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. T
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

This is the existential question for the Cavs: Who is the ball going to find, and what are they going to do with it? As one longtime general manager told B/R on Sunday, the Cavs, quite clearly, are "still trying to figure that out."

"There's one thing you have to remember if you play with LeBron," the veteran executive said. "If he gets you an open shot, you have to take it. You have to. He wants you to take it. And you can't be afraid."

Sunday's outcome—and the way Lue decided to go with his closing lineup—sets up yet another fascinating chapter in this season of unrest in Cleveland. If Lue lacks confidence in the players Altman acquired at the deadline, what does that say about coaching staff and front office being on the same page?

And just as important: Where is James going to turn for help in Game 5 in Cleveland on Wednesday night?

"I always say," James said, "the best teacher in life is experience."

It's something the Cavs, quite clearly, are still trying to acquire.


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.


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