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LeBron James let the Pacers have hope, and then he crushed them anyway

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Indiana built a huge first-half lead, but James led the comeback and earned the win anyway.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers messed around for an entire half, had minimal contributions from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and still erased a 26-point deficit to beat the Indiana Pacers in Game 3. Sometimes, when you have LeBron James, that’s just how it works.

It was James who damn near single-handedly pushed Cleveland to their 119-114 win on Thursday. He had 41 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists, a couple blocks, and only three turnovers. No other Cavalier had more than 13 points.

Cleveland seemed completely disengaged for the first 24 minutes, when they gave up two 37-point quarters to the Pacers and found themselves down 25 points at halftime. Their defense has been a sticking point for months now — this season, Cleveland was only 22nd-best in the league, dropping 12 spots from last year’s championship roster. No team has ever won a championship with a defense as bad as the Cavaliers’, but we all remember what they did in the 2016 Finals shutting down the Warriors for the final three games. In theory, that should still be something the Cavaliers are capable of doing.

Is it just a switch they can flip? Maybe the thing is that Cleveland has found the switch, and now they’re just toying with us by using it liberally. For the first half, just for fun, Cleveland left it “off.” Some Cavalier stands next to the switch at halftime, chain smoking cigarettes, chuckling at enthused Pacers fans who thought their team might actually be coming through in Game 3, before flipping it into the “on” position. God, it really seemed that easy on Thursday, didn’t it?

As much as we’ll keep talking about flipping switches — and yes, the second-half defense was demonstrably better than the first 24 — maybe the first half was really a problem for Cleveland. Certainly, if the Cavaliers have dreams of another title, they can’t mess around for entire quarters before they really start playing.

It’s still so hard to tell, and seeing how Cleveland is 3-0 in the first round, maybe they know exactly what they’re doing. In three seasons, the Cavaliers have yet to lose a first-round game. In fact, they’ve now won 19 of 21 games in the opening two rounds since James’ return.

If there’s a moral to this story, that’s what it is: it’s good to have LeBron James.

As long as they have him (James has won 20 straight first-round games, by the way), they’re the favorites to return to the finals. It’s not a complicated equation at all. James spotted the Pacers 15 points and gave himself 24 minutes to beat them, and then he did just that. He has done this to Indiana repeatedly over the past half-decade, crushing them when he was in Miami and now continuing his dominance with Cleveland, where he shows no more mercy than he did with the Heat.

James is possibly the best player ever, and these are the things he does.