LeBron James is being tested like never before in the playoffs, and the biggest question in the NBA hangs over it

LeBron James

  • The Indiana Pacers have pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers to a decisive Game 7.
  • LeBron James’ teams have never struggled so mightily in the first round of the playoffs, and it’s sign that James doesn’t have the help he needs on the team.
  • If the Cavs get eliminated, it will immediately raise questions about James’ future as he enters free agency with the chance to join another team.

Going into these NBA playoffs, LeBron James hadn’t lost a first-round game since 2012.

Now, on Sunday, there is a possibility James could exit the playoffs without winning a single series.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been given all they can handle against the Indiana Pacers, a feisty underdog that has arguably outplayed the Cavs in the series. They have pushed the Cavs to a decisive Game 7 on Sunday with the chance to knock out the team everyone thought would walk to the NBA Finals for a fourth year in a row.

The Pacers won Game 1 in Cleveland. They were a missed, wide-open, game-tying three-pointer from Victor Oladipo in Game 2 from going up 2-0.

In Game 5 in Cleveland, James saved the Cavs from blowing a lead with a game-saving block and game-winning three-pointer to put them up 3-2 in the series. Indiana responded by blowing out the Cavs in Game 6 to even the series and force a Game 7.

Since returning to the Cavs, James hasn’t faced an Eastern Conference playoff foe that has truly given him trouble. The Chicago Bulls came the closest in 2014-15, but the Cavs still won that series in six games. Last year, the Cavs swept through the East to make the Finals.

LeBron’s free agency looms large.

Contending teams have been pushed in first-round series before, but few have ever had the stakes of this Cavs team, and it’s all because of James.

James’ free agency looms large over the league. It once seemed impossible that James would test the free agency waters again (though he’s opted out each summer since returning to Cleveland, it was always just to re-up his contract and keep the pressure on the Cavs) but last summer, whispers began that James could leave the Cavs in the summer of 2018.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what team James could or would join. Would he really join a Western Conference team where he’d only have to face the Golden State Warriors earlier in the postseason? As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst noted on “The Lowe Post” podcast, James has such power in the league that he can pick whichever team he wants and make it happen.

While leaving Cleveland for a second time would be a gut-punch to the city and organisation, it’s hard to see what would keep him there. There’s little help on the horizon, other than the Brooklyn Nets’ lottery pick the Cavs own this June. Even still, James hasn’t been one to rely on rookies for help, instead favouring the experience that veteran players begin. He essentially ordered the trade in 2014 that sent No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love.

James has shouldered an almost impossible load just to keep the Cavs afloat against the Pacers. The pieces acquired at the Cavs’ hectic trade deadline haven’t helped at all. George Hill has missed three games with back spasms. Love is playing through a thumb injury that many suspect is throwing him off more than he’s revealed. Cavs veterans like J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson are no longer the role players James could rely on. Thompson is struggling to even crack the rotation.

That combination of players above – Love, Hll, Smith, Thompson, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson (the latter two acquired at the deadline) are owed almost $US90 million next year. The Cavs don’t have the financial ability to improve this team. Barring some major trade – and the Cavs have few attractive assets to lure another star – this is their roster.

The Cavs desperately miss the one-on-one scoring ability of Kyrie Irving, who bailed out Cavs possessions in the playoffs perhaps even more than people even realised. James is the Cavs’ go-to scorer and facilitator and has struggled to go full-tilt because of the heavy minutes he’s played. He’s played 245 minutes of a possible 288 so far this postseason – or an average of seven minutes of rest per game.

One league source familiar with the Cavs noted that perhaps the only player on the Cavs James trusts right now is Kyle Korver. The same source said James looks frustrated and teetering on giving up – something apparent every time James doesn’t sprint back on defence after a turnover or sulks after the Cavs’ leaky defence cedes an open basket to the Pacers.

Lebron 3Christian Petersen/Getty

It’s possible that Sunday is James’ final game with the Cavs. Of course, no one in the NBA boasts James’ resume in Game 7s, and the Cavs will be favourites for simply having James on their side on their home court.

But it stands to reason that if the Cavs’ first-round opponent has given them this much trouble, the rest of the journey won’t be any easier.

The entire league will be watching closely on Sunday. If James and the Cavs fall short, the biggest story in the NBA will begin right away – what will James do next?

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