CLEVELAND — It took mere minutes before the comparisons began flying about Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland fans immediately remembered Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals.
Cavs head coach Ty Lue compared it to a less-than-ideal moment in Cleveland sports lore: Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round of the 1989 playoffs. Michael Jordan over Craig Ehlo. The shot.
LeBron James deviated from the postseason altogether, calling back to the final seconds of the Cavaliers’ win over the Minnesota Timberwolves this past February.
Regardless of the benchmark, the result was the same: a buzzer-beating, game-winner—this one sending the Cavaliers to a 3-2 series lead over the Indiana Pacers, the final score glowing a bright 98-95.
Cleveland’s new version of “The Shot” sent James careening about The Q’s floor as if he were a 270-pound human pinball. From the top of the three-point line, James ran directly to his bench, his arms extended to his sides, into the arms of rookie Cedi Osman. From there, he sprinted to the corner across from the bench, celebrating with the fans on one side of the arena.
After getting bombarded by more celebrations from his teammates, it was an adrenaline-fueled beeline to the top of the scorer’s table, where he could get an even better view of the 41,000 arms raised in the air in jubilation.
“I trusted what I always worked on,” James said of his game-winner. “As a kid, you always have those ‘3…2…1…’ moments. And being able to have one of those moments, that’s what it kind of felt like. I felt like I was a kid all over again, just playing basketball inside my house with a makeshift hoop, and my socks as a basketball, making the [swish] noise.”
As James and the Cavaliers celebrated, all the Pacers could do was stare into the distance, arms angled in the surrender cobra, mouthing phrases to themselves in desperation.
“My God,” Indiana center Myles Turner could be seen saying as the elation took place in front of him. After all, his Pacers held the Cavs to a seven-minute stretch in the fourth quarter where nary a field goal was made. Until the final three seconds of the game clock expired, Indiana had outscored the Cavs 22-14 in the fourth quarter and was one defensive possession away from taking the contest into overtime with momentum on its side.
Nevertheless, it was an inbounds pass from Jeff Green that was corralled by James. After two dribbles with his left hand, the four-time MVP launched a fadeaway three-pointer over the outstretched arm of forward Thaddeus Young, the ball falling straight through the net as the final buzzer sounded.
“[It was] just how we drew it up,” Cavs forward Kevin Love said of the final play. “We wanted to free up LeBron as best we could and have him make a read to go low or high. I’ve seen him shoot that shot in practice, going to his left and rising without a pump fake. He was in a good rhythm, and he hit an amazing shot. It was unbelievable.”
It was James’ fourth game-winning field goal of his postseason career. The first was against the Orlando Magic in 2009, a fadeaway three-pointer that knotted the series up at one game apiece. Four years later as a member of the Miami Heat, he sank a game-winning layup against the Pacers. And in what was his most recent moment of buzzer-beating heroics, James sank a corner three-pointer against the Derrick Rose-led Bulls to tie the series 2-2 in 2015.
Following Wednesday’s win, James was asked about the shot against the Magic, but as the 15-year vet is wont to do, he found a few intricacies that made the shot unique in its own way.
“It didn’t remind me until a lot of the people in the locker room brought it up at that time,” James said. “The inbound pass was on the other side of the floor, and I didn’t have a chance to put the ball on the floor, but it pretty much ended up being the same spot, kind of in the middle of the floor.”
As with anything to do with the Cavaliers this season, the high moments were preceded by moments of despair. As if an ill-timed, late-game cold spell wasn’t enough, Cleveland turned the ball over out of a timeout in an attempt to get a two-for-one possession in the game’s final seconds, sucking the wind out of the home arena. On the ensuing play, James completely redeemed himself after he blocked a game-winning attempt by Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.
Replays later showed that the ball may have hit the backboard before being taken out of the air by James, but officials were unable to review the play because no whistle was blown.
James and the Cavaliers then called a timeout to set up the final play. Coach Lue was forced to once again reach into his bag of after-timeout tricks, and he pulled out one that will forever be in James’ career highlight reel.
“We ran our play as soon as the ball got in his hand,” Lue said. “It looked perfect and on target.
“For me, I just kind of blank out in those situations. You’ve been preparing for those situations for so long. You have the best player in the world on your team, and if you get the ball to him, you know he’s capable of delivering. Jeff got it to him, and Bron to his sweet spot, and knocked it down.”
As he stepped off the postgame podium, Lue harkened back to “The Shot,” Jordan’s game-winning jumper over Ehlo in Game 5 against the Cavaliers. Jordan received a pass from the right side of the floor, took two left-handed dribbles to the middle of the floor, rose up and sank the famous shot as the clock expired.
“It was the same action,” Lue said with a smile.
“For whatever reason, he really likes to get into that step-back,” Cavs guard JR Smith said postgame. “To have him put that in his game, in the playoffs, and feel confident in it … it says a lot.”
Heading into Game 5, there was a buzzing local concern brewing that Thursday night could potentially be James’ final game in Cleveland as a member of the Cavaliers. With his free agency looming and the Cavs finding themselves in a tough matchup against the Pacers, Cleveland fans’ fear began to bubble up like the cauldrons of yesteryear. A loss on Thursday would send the series back to Indiana with both games potentially being a mere 48 minutes from the end of a season that initially had championship aspirations.
Instead, James treated fans to a 44-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist outing that was stamped by a shot that will be played on a loop until these two teams meet for Game 6 (and well beyond that).
“They pay their hard-earned money to come see us play,” James said of the postgame celebration where he ran from corner to corner. “For me and my ballclub to come play a game like we did tonight, it was my way of showing appreciation.”
There are plenty of comparisons for LeBron James game-winners, but the gravity of Thursday night’s Game 5 arguably lofts his latest into a hemisphere of its own. Rather than leaving an arena full of angst and concern, it was James who singlehandedly sent Cavaliers fans home having seen a sequence that will go down as one of the many “I was there when…” moments of James’ otherworldly career.