Even in a career stocked with incredible playoff performances, James delivered a certified instant classic Wednesday night in one of those teeter-totter Game 5s that often determine seasons.
The headline is James made a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer, one of his step-left specialties, to beat the Indiana Pacers 98-95 and gift the Cavs a 3-2 series lead. The basket came after a game-saving block on Victor Oladipo -- where James' quick-twitch reaction appeared to allow him to get away with goaltending -- got the Cavs the final possession with three seconds left. Those will be the highlights on the reels that run for decades.
LeBron calls game on Pacers
With 3.0 seconds left in the game, LeBron James drains a buzzer-beater to beat the Pacers 98-95 and take a 3-2 series lead.
But that wasn't the reason James' teammates doused him with water in celebration on the floor. They toasted him because of his complete effort, which included 44 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists with the sort of attack-dog mentality that not only saved the season but also pushed off thoughts of James' free agency for at least a few days.
"As a kid, you always have those 'three-two-one' moments, and being able to have one of those moments, that's what it kind of felt like. Felt like I was a kid all over again," James said. "Just playing basketball at my house, makeshift hoops and my socks as a basketball. Making the [swish] noise."
The Pacers were frustrated that they allowed James to have so much space -- tracking data from Second Spectrum showed that James had 4.6 feet of room when he launched the shot. A switch had gotten Thaddeus Young, who had five fouls, to guard James, and he allowed too much cushion.
"We had a timeout to talk about what we see out there, and we had a foul to give," Pacers coach Nate McMillan. "We're leaving here with both of them."
As James and the Cavs celebrated, the Pacers stood agog and retreated to their locker room shell-shocked. Once they got to their phones and saw replays of James' block, their mood turned sour.
The frantic end came after a throwback, grinding game that has defined this series. With the Cavs struggling for offense again, James shifted into bulldozer mode and bullied and bruised the Pacers with a mixture of skill and will. Every point was needed, as the Cavs squandered a double-digit second-half lead for the fourth time in the series.
Beyond James, it was a bit of a mess for both teams. The Cavs were miserable down the stretch, missing seven straight shots and turning it over twice in the nine possessions before James' clutch make. James' shot ended a seven-minute drought without a basket.
The Pacers were terrible as a team for long stretches, turning the ball over 20 times and repeatedly fouling up possessions. Oladipo was just 2-of-15 and is now 7-of-35 in the past two games.
That's now two 40-point games in the series for James and 21 in his postseason career, moving him into second place all time behind Michael Jordan's 38. The window is now open Friday for James to eliminate the Pacers for the fifth time in the past seven seasons.
The game plan clearly was for James to attack, especially when the Pacers switched bigger defenders on him. James made several early hoops on vicious drives, getting around the corner repeatedly and beating any help to the rim. His teammates struggled -- combining to shoot just 3-of-15 in the first quarter -- so James doubled down.
Over the years, James has learned so many ways to control games. He has improved his jump shot, he has learned to play with his back to the basket, and he has tried to teach teammates to be ready for him to distribute so he can play that role. But this was back-to-brute basics.
James made basket after basket in the paint, racking up nine of them from within three feet by halftime. By the third quarter, the frustrated Pacers answered by just fouling him. But it didn't slow him down, as he made all 15 of his free throws, the most makes without a miss in his playoff career.
But having James is some difference-maker.
"I just try to read the game," James said. "It's a chess game throughout four quarters with their coaching staff and our coaching staff and their players and our players. I'm always just trying to figure out ways I can stay above the curve."