To put the ball in the hands of LeBron James is the closest a coach can get to having peace of mind. There are no guarantees in a game where even the best process can clang off the rim, but there is some sort of relief in knowing that James will give any opportunity a near-optimal chance to play out to its fullest. He is an impossible cover for any single defender who will unfailingly expose any double team. The pressure to stop him is oppressively conceptual: Should you take a slow step, guess the wrong move or lean the wrong way, LeBron is virtually guaranteed to capitalize. Understanding those stakes only adds to the weight of an impossible task.
All of which made the signature James isolation Wednesday night all the more bewildering. With the score and the series against Indiana tied and some 30 seconds remaining in the game, LeBron began to drive to his right against Thaddeus Young. This was the surest hand in the league in the cleanest setup possible, the floor spread to the point that no other Pacer could interfere. Yet as James closed in toward the rim, his handle got away from him—only so much that he had to strain to reach it, but enough as to disrupt his rhythm. A one-on-one premise that is the envy of the league ended with Young poking the ball loose, and James inadvertently knocking the ball out of bounds.
This was a jarring moment, one we should have known better than to believe. Slow-motion replay confirmed that James lost control of his dribble, but added one crucial detail: Young’s deflection knocked the ball to the baseline—and out of bounds—before it could bounce off of James’s arm. The possession was called to Indiana’s benefit, but nothing had materially changed. This was still LeBron James, and there was time yet for him to remind the world of its natural order.
It was only fitting then, that Victor Oladipo’s own game-winning drive would have to go through James. In truth, it went past him; Oladipo revved up at halfcourt, as has become his specialty, before driving straight toward James and swerving around him with a crossover. The opening was there. But just as Oladipo layed the ball up toward the backboard, James pinned it against the glass, robbing it of its symbolism. (In a bit of cosmic justice, it was later revealed—via replay—that James had actually goaltended Oladipo’s shot. All comes to a balance, cruel as it seems, in the works of the basketball gods.)
The block itself, regardless of its legality, was a reminder. It didn’t matter that James had to score nearly half of Cleveland’s points himself for this to be any sort of a competitive game. It was immaterial that Kyle Korver seemed to be the only scorer James could trust, or that things for the Cavs were so dire that they needed to cull 20 minutes out of Jose Calderon. There was always a fundamental difference between the Cavs and the Pacers in this series, and it came in the form of the all-world, all-dominant, first-team-savant superstar at the heart of it.
While Oladipo worked painstakingly to avoid Cleveland’s pick-and-roll traps, James operated as if the defense were inconsequential. He played for 22 minutes in this game—and scored 22 points on 11 shots—before even attempting a jumper. For as brilliantly as Oladipo has played this season and as competitively as the Pacers have waged this series, there are levels to this. James could not shoot 2-for-15 (OK, 3-for-15) from the field as Oladipo did and still have his team survive. The Cavs surrendered a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter as it was. They needed every play LeBron could give, and an authority in the game’s highest-leverage moments.
James provided it. With three seconds remaining, he caught the ball on the perimeter and veered toward the top of the arc, where he let loose a three over Young. This time, there would be no deflection. No mistake. Only a shot so pure that Cavs reserve Cedi Osman, with the ball still in the air and the buzzer sounding, came skipping off the bench in anticipation. LeBron barely had time to take in the moment before he was mobbed by his teammates, celebrating the 98–95 win. When he emerged, he smacked his chest, pumped his fists and mounted the scorer’s table.
You wouldn’t know from this moment that James had to drag his entire team out of the fire just to avoid going back to Indianapolis down 3-2. Only that when the game wobbled strangely out of balance, the steadiest hand on the court came to correct it.