INDIANAPOLIS — Around LeBron James, chaos was forming. A first-round series was in peril with a raucous crowd inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Lance Stephenson being Lance Stephenson on Sunday night, both attempting to sabotage James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. So much changed for James when he led Cleveland to the 2016 championship after a 3-1 series deficit, a lifetime immunity card. In a season of inconsistency and roster turnover, teammates, coaches and people who know James best understand the calm his 2016 Finals experience still brings.
So here came the Pacers and Stephenson, pressing the Cavaliers’ buttons and nearly surpassing their previous feat of becoming the first team to place James behind 2-1 in a first-round playoff series. James has seen Stephenson’s antics before in this arena. He’s overcome it, and did it again on Sunday night. James scored 32 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, dished seven assists and blocked two shots in Cleveland’s 104-100 win over the Pacers in Game 4 to tie the series at 2-2. James doesn’t stress these moments anymore; he’s been molded by them.
“LeBron understands that as long as he’s on the floor, we can come back from anything — he knows what we came back from,” Cavaliers coach Ty Lue told Yahoo Sports late Sunday night. “We’re missing Kyrie [Irving], Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and other guys … but it’s about staying even-keel. That’s the lesson. I just try to stay even-keel. I don’t want to be all yelling, hollering, in panic mode. Stay even-keeled. That’s what he likes about me.
“He calms us. Stay even-keeled, knowing he’ll get the job done when he needs to.”
James understands what he came back from in 2016, and it supplies him with the mentality of playing without fearing failure. The Cavaliers’ supporting cast foundered in Game 3, and the Pacers made critical shots and defensive stops to take a 2-1 lead. James never criticized his supporting group, as easy as it would have been, even subtly, but he expected more out of it. That included Kyle Korver, who scored 18 points on four 3-pointers, including the one that put the Cavaliers ahead for good at 94-93 with 3:48 remaining in the fourth quarter. That included J.R. Smith and Jordan Clarkson, who scored 12 points apiece.
Finally, Korver made his 3-pointers, James jokingly sighed Sunday night.
“It’s the same shots he’s gotten, except he wasn’t making them,” James said. “That’s one of the all-time shooters.”
“We have no doubt in Kyle,” Kevin Love added. “He’s the consummate pro, and we needed him.”
James and the Cavaliers had just enough. Yet around the NBA, personnel people ask: How far can this formula take them? Indiana had opportunities to win Sunday night despite its backcourt of All-Star Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison shooting a combined 10 of 34, and Bojan Bogdanovic — the Game 3 hero — missing six of eight 3-pointers. While Domantas Sabonis provided 19 points off the bench, Stephenson (11 points and six assists) imprinted the game with energy and controversy. He’s a beloved figure in the hearts of Pacers fans, a seminal link to the franchise’s contenders earlier this decade. Stephenson has never shied from the extreme when defending James, and in Game 4 he baited LeBron into a technical foul and then forced a jump ball with James before holding the basketball high above his head in the fourth quarter.
It became humorous, a side distraction for James.
“It’s like elementary school,” James said of giving Stephenson a slight shove that earned the technical heading into a fourth-quarter timeout. “Lance told me a joke, I laughed and the teacher caught me.
“Keeping the main thing, the main thing. I understand how important I am to the team.”
Forty-six minutes played, and James had command of the floor through most of it. When Myles Turner, the Pacers’ promising young center, picked up a foul with 8:29 left in the third, James yelled and showed four fingers to teammates, “That’s four.” It was Turner’s fourth foul, and he would be substituted out. James directed teammates all night, directed the game’s flow. Sooner than later this postseason, it could all wear on James. “I try to get pockets of energy,” James said, “so when I know I’m going to be needed, I have it.”
LeBron James strolled the hallways out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse late Sunday, pulling his first 2-1, first-round deficit into a tie. No trailing 3-1 here, no questions about Golden State in 2016 just yet. Disaster averted.
“Three-1 is too difficult, whether it’s in the first round or if you’re fortunate enough to get to the Finals,” James said.
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