CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James wasn’t ready to go home or to Philadelphia or Los Angeles.
He’s heading to Toronto, bringing a Cavaliers team that isn’t done yet.
Unwilling to sit despite battling leg cramps in the second half, James scored 45 points and got some much-needed help from his teammates in Game 7 to stay unbeaten in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, leading the Cavaliers to a 105-101 win on Sunday over the Indiana Pacers, who pushed the game’s best player to the breaking point.
Following the game, an exhausted James said the series took a physical toll.
“I’m burnt right now,” he said. “I’m not thinking about Toronto right now until tomorrow. I’m ready to go home. Can we? I’m tired. I want to go home.”
James added nine rebounds, seven assists and played over 43 minutes while improving to 13-0 in the first round. He kept Cleveland’s strange season alive — for the time being — but it took everything the 33-year-old and the Cavs had to hold off the Pacers, who came in confident after a 34-point win in Game 6.
But James, who at times seemed to be playing the Pacers by himself in the series, pulled the Cavs back from the brink of elimination and at least delayed any more talk about impending free agency.
“Amazing,” Indiana’s Victor Oladipo said of James. “He did what he always does. It’s not really shocking. He’s the best in the world, and that’s what the best does and now I gotta work to get on that level.”
The Cavs will open the conference semifinals on Tuesday at top-seeded Toronto.
Early in the game, James looked at agent Rich Paul sitting courtside and told him he wasn’t coming out. James then played the first 35 minutes before heading to the locker room with one minute left in the third to be treated for what he said was “a little minor injury.” James said he was urged to get IV fluids but turned them down.
Nothing was going to keep James off the floor in what some Cleveland fans feared could have been his last game with the franchise.
He fought through the fatigue. He had no choice.
“It felt like a Game 7,” he said. “It was like, your mind is thinking like, ‘OK, besides the two I played in the Finals, you start thinking like, is this it? Could this be it?’ That’s just human nature. And then the other side of my brain was like, ‘Let’s go make something happen. Let’s go, that’s what you here for. You’re here to make plays, you’re the leader.'”
The Cavs got a huge lift from Tristan Thompson, who played just 24 minutes in the first six games but made a rare start as Cavs coach Tyronn Lue used his 34th different starting lineup this season. Thompson added 15 points and 10 rebounds, Kevin Love made four 3-pointers, and George Hill returned after missing three games with back spasms to score 11 in 19 second-half minutes.
“Five guys in double figures,” said Lue, who has taken heat for some decisions in the series. “But I’m just happy Tristan, because he’s been here with us for so long and been through all of the things we’ve been through over the course of the last four years, and to step in and play the way he did, I’m just so happy for him.”
Oladipo scored 30 and Darren Collison had 23 for the Pacers, who were still within four in the final minute before a cutting James scored on a bullet pass from Kyle Korver with 30 seconds left.
“Best receiver in the NBA,” Korver said of James. “Just got to put it up there for him.”
Oladipo hit a 3 at the horn and was immediately embraced by James, who had never played a first-round Game 7 and was in jeopardy of seeing an eighth trip to the Finals end quickly.
“Honestly, I think we were the better team, and they had the best player in the world,” Pacers forward Trevor Booker said.
It was the first Game 7 in Quicken Loans Arena history, and Cleveland fans were on edge from the start.
A loss would not only have ended the Cavs’ season earlier than expected and their reign as three-time conference champs, but it would have pushed James closer to free agency. He’s expected to opt out of his contract in July to test the market, and there’s already a line of teams stretching from Philly to L.A. looking to sign the three-time champion.
His stay in Cleveland isn’t quite complete.
After the Cavs were rocked in Game 6, Lue knew he needed to shake things up, so he started players he trusts most. Korver got the nod along with James, Love, Smith and Thompson — the four holdovers from the three Finals teams.
“I just think in Game 7, go with the guys who’ve been here, who’ve been through it all and know what it takes,” Lue said.
Despite the loss, the Pacers felt great about their season.
“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” Oladipo said. “Nobody thought we would be here.”
Lance Stephenson, an eight-year pro in his second tour with Indiana, was especially impressed with the team’s young players.
“This team was amazing,” he said. “We brought it every night. There was no drama all season and everybody kept a positive attitude at all times. The future is bright.”
Pacers: Both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis fouled out. … Stephenson picked up his second technical of the series when he hit James in the head on a first-quarter drive. … Dropped to 3-6 in Game 7s, with all of the losses coming on the road.
Cavaliers: James won his fifth straight Game 7. … By picking off a pass midway through the second quarter, James became the career playoff leader in steals. He entered the game tied with Scottie Pippen (395) for the most postseason thefts. … Celebrated the 42nd anniversary of the “Miracle at Richfield” in 1976, when the Cavs defeated the Washington Bullets in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. Cleveland’s fans stormed the court and tore down both baskets.
Pacers: Head into an offseason with optimism after their strong showing.
Cavaliers: Will meet the Raptors for the third straight postseason.
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