The situation was dire, requiring playoff dominance. LeBron James delivered.
No surprise there.
Taking matters into his own hands, James scored 46 points and added 12 rebounds as the Cleveland Cavaliers bounced back from a poor performance in the series opener by holding off the Indiana Pacers 100-97 on Wednesday night to even their Eastern Conference playoff matchup at one game apiece.
Dazzling from the start, James scored the game’s first 16 points and had 29 at halftime, ruling the floor as he has done in so many previous postseasons.
“Coach Lue called up the first play for me and it went down,” James said. “So we went back to it. I was able to hit another one. And it just felt like I was in a really good rhythm, so I just tried to see how long I could stay in that zone and try to make a mark on the game early on.
“I played my game,” he said.
But in a season in which nothing has been easy for the Cavs, Cleveland was lucky that Indiana’s Victor Oladipo missed a wide-open 3-pointer that would have tied it with 27 seconds left.
“I got a clean look, I shot and I just missed,” Oladipo said, shrugging his shoulders. “If I had that look again, I would take it every time.”
Kevin Love scored 15, but Cleveland’s All-Star center jammed his left thumb — the same hand he broke earlier this season— while deflecting a pass and sat out the final 3:43 left with the Cavs clinging to a slim lead. Lue said Love could have returned and “he’s fine” for Game 3 on Friday.
As long as James is OK, the Cavs will always have a chance.
Lue shook up his starting lineup for Game 2 and Kyle Korver contributed 12 points, all on 3s, made several hustling plays and took two charges.
Oladipo scored 22 — he was in early foul trouble — and Myles Turner 18 for the Pacers, who shocked the Cavs with an overpowering win in Game 1 and head home full of confidence.
Indiana clawed back from an 18-point deficit and was within 95-92 when Oladipo, who scored 32 in the opener, somehow came free off a screen but missed maybe his easiest shot in two games.
“We blew a coverage and we were lucky and I’d rather be on time, on target than to be lucky,” James said. “But he missed it and I was able to get the rebound.”
James then made three free throws over the final 22 seconds as the Cavs avoided falling behind 2-0 on the series.
The 33-year-old James was expected to be more aggressive than in Game 1, when he was unusually passive, deferred to teammates and suffered the first playoff-opening loss of his career.
James was his unstoppable self again, and there wasn’t a whole lot the Pacers could do about him in the first half.
“We just wanted him to set the tone and he did that by getting to the basket early, making a couple jump shots,” Lue said. “But we ran the same first play until they stopped it. He kept getting what he wanted. We just kind of followed his lead from there.”
Lue had been contemplating changes to his starting lineup and he made two moves, going with Korver and J.R. Smith over Jeff Green and Rodney Hood. Green didn’t score in the opener and Hood only started because Korver was dealing with a sore right foot.
While the changes weren’t that surprising, Oladipo leaving after 62 seconds was stunning.
Indiana’s lightning-quick guard picked up an offensive foul and then got his second when he knocked over James, who was setting a screen. With Oladipo off the floor, the Pacers didn’t have an offensive answer to James.
James made his first five attempts and scored Cleveland’s first 16 points, making a pair of 3-pointers and then picking up assists on 3s by Love and Korver. James outscored the Pacers 20-18 in the first 12 minutes.
Love said X-rays were negative and he expects to play Game 3.
“It’s not going to feel great tomorrow, but I’ll throw some ice on it, tape it up and I’ll be ready to go,” he said.
Korver was limited to just four minutes in the opener because he was sick and had lingering soreness in his foot.
But he came through in Game 2, playing 31 minutes and coming up big at both ends.
“Kyle was great for us,” Lue said. “He does all the little things it takes to win, and when you want to win a championship, you know you gotta do all the little things.”
Despite the loss, Indiana’s locker room was filled with confidence. The Pacers took a big shot from James, but didn’t buckle.
“Take nothing away from what he’s done, but he had 46 points and we lost by three,” Thaddeus Young said. “We punched them, they punched us. We’re very, very confident.”
Pacers: Shot 6 of 22 on 3-pointers. … Oladipo became the fourth player in Pacers history with at least 30 points and six 3-pointers in a postseason game in the opener, joining Reggie Miller, Chuck Person and Paul George.
Cavaliers: Improved to 40-0 when leading after three quarters. … It was the 20th time James has scored at least 40 in the playoffs. … Lue refused to reveal his lineup changes two hours before tip, saying by doing so he would give the Pacers — or any team in the postseason — and advantage. “Being strategic in the playoffs, if you tell your lineup, they can see what matchups they want to do and who’s going to guard who, what matchups they want to guard,” Lue explained.
Game 3 is Friday night.