CLEVELAND—The night began with LeBron James dancing during warm-ups, without a care in the world, and it nearly ended early with the Cavaliers forward limping and wearing total concern.
Every note on the emotional scale is in play whenever James takes center stage in the postseason, but Cleveland's 114–111 overtime victory over Atlanta in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals featured a particularly wide range. There was James's loose boogying to rapper Fetty Wap before the game, there was James's effortless backboard-slap while claiming a rebound, there was James's frustrating finishes at the rim and erratic jump shooting, there was James's showy high-steps as he brought the ball up the court, there was James's pain at taking an inadvertent below-the-belt shot and then immediate revenge in the form of a poster dunk, there was James' brief panic over cramps, there was James's icy go-ahead three-pointer, and there was, finally, James's total exhaustion once it was over.
"I gave it everything I had tonight," James said after logging 47 minutes, his most since April 4, 2014.
By the time a spent James was able to take a moment to savor the Cavaliers' 3-0 lead, doubled over on the court, he had compiled a staggering and unprecedented box score line. The four-time MVP finished with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists, marking his 12th career playoff triple-double and his first of the 2015 playoffs. That points/rebounds/assists combination has not only never been matched before in the postseason, but now exists in its own realm. The closest comparison points since 1985: James posted 37/14/12 in 2009 and 37/12/11 in 2010, and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley once put up 43/15/10 in 1993. Along the way, James became the first player to hoist 37 shots in a playoff game since Vince Carter did it on April 28, 2005, more than a decade ago.
This diamond-like performance nearly slipped down the drain. Early in the overtime period, James came up short on a jumper and began bouncing tentatively, much like he did during Game 1 of last year's Finals against the Spurs (the infamous "Cramp Game" in the overheated AT&T Center). As Jeff Teague shot free throws at the other end, James turned to Cleveland's bench and asked for a substitute. Coach David Blatt didn't react immediately, acting like someone hoping that bad news might just go away if he ignored it.
Slowly, a substitute hopped up to check in, but by that time James had changed his mind. He took a circuitous path around the court, walking off the kinks, and decided to remain in the game. "It was tough for him to convince me to keep him on the floor," Blatt quipped later. "It really was. I sort of said, 'Okay.'"
James's choice—to play through or to hop off—came in the midst of this series' first real drama. After two resounding Cavaliers victories in Atlanta, the Hawks fought through injuries to multiple players and the ejection of Al Horford to take Game 3 down to the wire. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer tapped the likes of Shelvin Mack and Mike Scott for big minutes, he asked Paul Millsap to defend James for long stretches, and he rode Teague hard for offense down the stretch.
Still, those efforts all seemed like foil work. This series has been all about James's impossible talent advantage since Game 1, and the Hawks missed multiple opportunities to take back any control on Sunday. Atlanta couldn't hold a four-point lead in the final 90 seconds of regulation, Teague missed a potential game-winner at the regulation buzzer, and Mack missed two shots at sending the game into double overtime.
Those shortcomings set the stage for James's triumphant close. After enduring a miserable shooting night—14 for 37 including 10 misses to start the game and 4 for 19 outside the basket area—James stumbled on his purest jumper of the night after deciding to fight through the pain in overtime.
"I play to exhaustion," James said. "I play hard and I give my teammates, I give myself as much as I can give. Sometimes the body just shuts down at times, and that's what happened tonight at one point. In the overtime, I asked to come out, but I had a second thought. I wouldn't have felt right about the situation—win, lose or draw—if I'd have gotten to the bench and not been out there for my teammates. It was mind over matter at that point."
[daily_cut.NBA]Mind over matter, and James over Millsap. With 40 seconds left and Atlanta leading by two, James called for the ball from Tristan Thompson, who had just rebounded James's missed jumper. "I saw in [Thompson's] mind that he wanted to go back up for that shot, and I yelled his name probably as loud as I could yell it because I wanted another opportunity," James said.
James's second thought about his health was rewarded with that second chance. Thompson fed James in the corner, and Millsap sprinted out to the line in hopes of contesting the three-pointer. James pumped once, allowing Millsap to fly by, before calmly setting his feet and burying the go-ahead outside shot.
It was James's only three-pointer of the game in six attempts, and he is now 10-for-62 (16.1%) from deep during the playoffs. Ugly numbers aside, it would be the shot that squelched any possibility of major drama in this series, the shot that forced the Hawks to the brink instead of giving them new life, the shot that brought James within one victory of his fifth consecutive Finals appearance. Then, James tacked on one final basket to give Cleveland its three-point margin of victory.
"[LeBron] knew that we could not win the game without him," Blatt said. "He played through pain, and he played through cramping. He just wouldn't let us lose."
This latest performance was another reminder of how comically, and unapologetically, dependent these undermanned Cavaliers are on James, even as Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Thompson found ways to contribute at key moments. The prospect of a Finals matchup against a deep, potent, and unselfish Warriors team now rises on the horizon, casting a foreboding shadow. But there will be plenty of time to worry about that later, especially for Cleveland’s overtaxed centerpiece. After 47 whirlwind minutes, James looked like he could use a little rest.