ATLANTA -- For everything that LeBron James is for the Cleveland Cavaliers -- captain, MVP, franchise savior, revenue generator, front-office consigliere and coach on the floor -- here’s what he was in the most critical juncture of the Cavs’ thrilling 121-108 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday to go up 3-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals:
Cleveland started the fourth quarter with James on the bench and trailing the Hawks by six. That hole quickly increased to nine on a Kyle Korver 3-pointer.
The pair combined for 14 points in the surge, with Irving scoring eight and Frye scoring six, as James got up off his seat and walked over to the scorer’s table with the margin cut to just two points.
The thought of a run like that with the stakes as high as they were on Friday -- on the road against a team fighting for its playoff life, considering no team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit -- without James’ involvement would have been absurd a couple of months ago.
The Cavs are just 4-15 in the 19 games that James has missed because of rest or injury since he returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014. Now 13 years into his career, James remains one of the few players, along with Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, who has a rightful claim to "best player in the game" status. That stature is a wonderful thing for the Cavs, as it instantly turned the team from a cellar dweller in the East to one that looks primed to make a repeat trip to the NBA Finals this June.
But it also can become a crutch. Because James is so good, the Cavs rely on him to do too much far too often.
While James was his usual dominant self -- putting up 10 of his 24 points, three of his eight assists and two of his 13 rebounds in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter to push the Cavs to their eventual blowout win -- the fact that the ball started rolling without him means everything to Cleveland.
As rare as it is, there will be a game this postseason in which James is having an off night or perhaps is being stymied by a player such as Leonard or Golden State’s Draymond Green. And when that game comes, the Cavs will have Friday’s experience to lean on as evidence that they can indeed withstand what comes when the King gets his crown knocked off.
“At the start of the fourth quarter, I just told Kyrie I wanted him to be aggressive, look to play fast early and try to play without the screen at times,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “Get to the basket -- they were trying to trap him and double-team him. He did a great job of carrying us offensively in the first half and the fourth quarter, and we brought LeBron back and it was a total team effort.”
The look on James’ face as he sat between Irving and Frye on the postgame podium was a mix of joy, satisfaction and pride. It’s one thing to surround James with talent, as the Cavs clearly have done this season in committing to the second-highest payroll in NBA history, which will cost owner Dan Gilbert north of $160 million when all is said and done. It’s another for that talent to feel empowered and confident enough to flip the script and have James hitch his wagon to their star every once in a while.
“They carried us and they brought it home for us,” James said of Irving, who finished with 24 points on 4-of-5 shooting from 3 and three steals, and Frye, who finished with 27 points on 7-of-9 shooting from deep and seven rebounds. “These two guys definitely carried us tonight, and it was special.”
After a late-February blowout loss in Washington during a game in which James rested, J.R. Smith said of the lopsided result, "It's one of those times you really got to appreciate the person he is and the player he is.”
It’s a message that has reverberated throughout the locker room as the season dragged on.
“When [James] goes to the bench, that’s when we need to pick him up and try to not hold onto the lead or tread water -- we want to make progress as well,” Matthew Dellavedova told ESPN.com.
As much as a force of nature James can be on the court, he has recognized his limitations for perhaps the first time in his career these past couple of seasons. Sure, he can still do it all himself for stretches -- even for weeks at a time -- but success will be far more sustainable in his second stint in Cleveland if Irving, Kevin Love and everyone else surrounding him owns their responsibility.
“I have to give him that time to get his legs back so he can close out the game for us, and we can all be in a great rhythm coming into that fourth quarter,” Irving said. “It’s really important that we have energy and we have a set game plan, especially when our different lineups are in.
“I can continue to get better and be a better leader in the fourth quarter when he’s not in. But when he comes in, we’re both going to lead the guys.”
Maybe hearing statements like that -- words steeped in accountability and improvement -- is what prompted James to offer up a strong statement of his own Friday night before leaving the podium to enjoy the Cavs’ 7-0 start to the playoffs.
“We’re a team that’s destined for greatness,” James said, “and I really believe that.”