The Cleveland Cavaliers matched the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history on Thursday, spinning a 26-point deficit into a 119-114 Game 3 victory over the Indiana Pacers. They did it behind LeBron James, whose masterful second half produced a triple-double of 41 points (on 14-of-27 shooting), 13 rebounds, and 12 assists, to take a 3-0 series lead over the Pacers with the threat of sweeping them in Indiana in Game 4.
James put together one of history’s amazing basketball stories without his All-Star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who were on the bench much of Cleveland’s run. Instead, Tyronn Lue surrounded The King with shooters, as James led a Cavaliers offense that outscored Indiana, 70-40, in the second half.
The lineup forced the Pacers to defend James and each shooter straight up much of the fourth quarter. That gave the world’s best player clear sight lines to the rim.
The lineup made LeBron even more unstoppable.
Cleveland’s stretch five — James, J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert, Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye — forced Indiana to defend James one-on-one or risk giving up an open three-pointer to elite shooters when trying to help.
The four-time NBA Most Valuable Player is lauded as the best basketball player in the world not only because of his unique blend of size, strength, and speed, but because of his passing ability and his intelligence. It makes James one of the most dangerous players to guard one-on-one, as he showed against Indiana.
Surrounding him with shooters like Lue did on Thursday is like the Houston Rockets putting Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon next to James Harden. That’s because defenders can’t cheat off their man to help on a runaway freight train. Otherwise, they run the risk of getting peppered from downtown.
James commands so much attention that he doesn’t even have to start the play. As the roll man, his finishing ability and court vision makes James equally as lethal. The additional shooters forced Indiana to pick its poison each trip down the floor.
It’s even tougher on defenses in isolation scenarios where James is looking to score. Few players can check The King on an island, and with four deadeye shooters lurking on the wing, the help must come from far away. That allows James to go to work and either blow by a slower opponent or barrel through a smaller one.
LeBron is at his best with all shooters on the floor.
In just a small sample size in the first round, that dynamic has proved equally as potent:
James-Frye-Korver-Smith-Williams: three minutes
Net Rating: 60.8 points/100 possessions
James-Frye-Korver-Shumpert-Williams: 10 minnutes
Net Rating: 48.8 points/100 possessions
James-Frye-Love-Korver-Williams: nine minutes
Net Rating: 46.7 points/100 possessions
Starters: 46 minutes
Net Rating: -5.5 points/100 possessions
The Cavaliers’ spread lineup has proven much more fruitful than its normal unit with two other All-Stars. It yanks the thought of helping from opposing teams and forces them to guard either LeBron or the three-point line. It’s a perpetual nightmare that Pacers head coach Nate McMillan is fighting through and losing against.
Amid Cleveland’s midseason defensive breakdown, Tyronn Lue said he had a secret plan to fix the Cavaliers. If the first round has been any indication, his plan is to spread the offense out and score more points.
And at least against Indiana, my guys, it’s working.
The Cavaliers are a game away from sweeping the Pacers at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. They’ll have the winner of the Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks series in the second round. And if Cleveland continues to spread its opponents out like this, the victor of that No. 3 vs. No. 6 showdown had better be ready to put a body on James and pick its poison.
Otherwise, it’ll be death by the spread with LeBron delivering the elimination blows.