CLEVELAND – LeBron James is on the brink of his earliest NBA playoff exit – and maybe another departure from Cleveland.
This Game 7 has a win-or-leave-home element.
After being bloodied and blown off the floor in Game 6 by the Pacers in Indianapolis, James and the Cavaliers staggered home with their roller-coaster season possibly headed toward a crash.
Only a win on Sunday over Indiana will prevent elimination and kick-start a summer in Cleveland that will center on James, who can opt out of his $35.6 million contract and become a free agent on July 1.
The stakes couldn’t be much higher. It’s the kind of game James lives to play.
“It’s just the love of the game and wanting to be remembered,” James said following a demoralizing 121-87 loss Friday night. “Game 7, I always said, is the two greatest words in sports. Us having a Game 7 on our floor, our fans are going to be truly excited to be a part of that. And hope our guys are excited about that as well, and understand that just don’t take those moments for granted.
“I’ve been a part of Game 7s for quite a while now and it’s just something that you wish you can get back and when you’re done playing the game.”
James has never lost a first-round series, going 12-0 with many of them sweeps on his way to winning three championships and seven straight appearances in the Finals.
But nothing has come easy for the 33-year-old or the Cavs, whose regular-season flaws – suspect defense, no reliable second scoring option – have been exposed by the young-and-hungry Pacers.
Indiana has taken it to Cleveland, and the fifth-seeded Pacers believe they can win one more and finally take down James, who has ended their season three times in the playoffs since 2013.
“We were confident even before this series started,” said Indiana All-Star Victor Oladipo, who snapped out of a shooting slump to score 28 in Game 6. “We’re still confident now. Game 7 is going to be a hostile environment. It’s going to be very emotional. But we’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s going to be a dog fight.
“We know they’re going to be ready. And we have to be, too.”
Before losing Game 6, James’ teams had won 11 straight close-out games. The streak ending was hardly his fault.
The four-time MVP scored 22 points with seven rebounds and five rebounds in 31 minutes before sitting out the entire fourth quarter to rest when it became obvious the Cavs were not coming back. James has been brilliant throughout the series, averaging 32.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 7.8 assists.
Trouble is, he’s been doing it all by himself.
Kevin Love, Cleveland’s other All-Star, is averaging just 11 points and shooting 32 percent (22 of 68) from the field. Love has been playing with a sprained left thumb, but his shot is broken.
Love scored seven points in Game 6 on 3-of-10 shooting – the third time he’s scored 10 points or fewer in the series – and he also took a beating from Indiana’s bigs.
After trading Kyrie Irving to Boston last summer and then dealing Isaiah Thomas, who was supposed to replace Irving, at the Feb. 8 deadline, the Cavs were counting on Love to pick up his game in the playoffs.
They’re still waiting.
“It’s not me, but it’s not about me, either,” Love said softly following Game 6. “I’ve done a lot of other good things. I know you guys will talk about the offense, but I just got to find a way to impact the game in different ways.”
Fortunately, the Cavs have James, who is 4-2 in Game 7s and hasn’t lost a series finale since 2008 in his first stint with Cleveland. He’s averaged 33.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in Game 7, and he needs to eclipse those numbers to keep the Cavs’ season alive and delay a decision that already has Cleveland fans on edge.
A look at the Pacers-Cavaliers first-round series finale:
PACERS AT CAVALIERS
Series tied 3-3. Game 7, 1 p.m. EDT, ABC.
NEED TO KNOW: This will be Cleveland’s first Game 7 at Quicken Loans in the building’s 24-year history. The Cavs twice won Game 7s at Richfield Coliseum (1976, 1992) and are 3-2 in Game 7s. Their most recent win came in the unforgettable 2016 victory over the Warriors that ended the city’s 52-year title drought.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The officiating. The series has been physical from the start. James received a nasty gash over his right eye in Game 6 on a play where nothing was called. If James is in attack mode, he’ll draw contact and will be looking for calls. He made 15 of 15 free throws while scoring 44 points in Game 5.
PRESSURE IS ON: All of the Cavs besides James. Cleveland needs someone in the supporting cast to do more or a drama-filled season will have a wretched conclusion.
INJURY UPDATE: Cavaliers starting guard George Hill remains questionable with back spasms. He hasn’t played since Game 3 but worked on his shot Saturday.