The Cavaliers arrived as one, wearing matching custom designer suits planned weeks in advance. They departed down 2-1, facing a new round of questions about their ability to extend LeBron James’s streak of consecutive Finals appearances to eight.
Indiana defeated Cleveland 92-90 in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday, overcoming a 17-point halftime lead thanks to 30 points from forward Bojan Bogdanovic.
For the third time in three games, the Cavaliers’ offense—which ranked fifth during the regular season—struggled to get on track. Cleveland is averaging a postseason-low 90 PPG and its 96.9 offensive rating ranks 15th out of the 16 playoff teams, even though James exploded for 46 points in Game 2 and posted 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in Game 3.
Nevertheless, James wasn’t fond of a question suggesting that he needed more help from his supporting cast.
"What are you guys looking for? Are you guys thinking I'm going to throw my teammates under the bus? No, I'm not about that,” James said. “Guys just got to play better, including myself. [I had six] turnovers tonight. I was horrible in the third quarter, couldn’t make a shot. If I make some better plays in the third quarter, then the lead doesn’t slip. We know we all have to play better as a collective group.”
While Kevin Love scored 19 points on Friday, the highest total for any of James’s teammates in the series, he was a non-factor for most of the second half as Indiana rallied. James struggled to find help from familiar faces and new faces alike: Kyle Korver went scoreless in 20 minutes, J.R. Smith shot 3-11 and Cleveland’s reshuffled bench combined for just 22 points in 82 minutes.
Coach Tyronn Lue needed a minute to collect his thoughts after the defeat.
"I just thought that their physicality, denying the basketball, getting into us, we were catching the ball back on our heels, the pressure just hurt us,” Lue said. “Ten turnovers in the second half. We just didn’t come out in that third quarter ready to play. … They were tougher than us in the second half.”
Remarkably, James has not lost two games in a first-round series since his Cavaliers needed six games to defeat the Wizards in 2008. What’s more, James is 12-0 in first-round series during his career, and he’s never needed a Game 7 to advance. Another road loss in Game 4 on Sunday would put Cleveland at the dreaded 3-1 deficit.
“It’s the postseason, I think every game is a must-win,” James said, when asked about Game 4’s stakes. “You want to come in and play well, you want to win, no matter if you have homecourt advantage or you start off on the road. That’s the mindset you have to have. You don’t win every game, obviously, but you come in with a mindset that every game is a must-win. You try to play with that type of urgency. Today I felt like it was a must-win, but we didn’t win. Sunday is the same mindset.”