But instead of facing that uncertainty and all that goes with it far earlier than expected, the Cavaliers and their fans can turn their attention to the top-seeded Toronto Raptors after clawing past a plucky Pacers team that actually outscored Cleveland by 40 points over the seven games.
“Bring your passports!” read the instructions scrawled in big letters on a greaseboard in the middle of the Cavaliers’ victorious locker room. They will fly to Canada on Monday to face the Raptors in Tuesday night’s Game 1.
“I’m burnt right now,” James said at his postgame news conference, explaining his reluctance to answer a question about matching up with the Raptors. He sounded eager to get away from the assembled news media members as quickly as possible.
“I’m ready to go home. Can we … I’m tired. I want to go home,” he said.
Seeing James abruptly head to the locker room with a minute remaining in the third quarter was a sufficiently scary moment for the Cavaliers and a home crowd of 20,562. He had played every second of the first half and had 26 points by intermission, but the stubborn Pacers sliced a 14-point deficit to 76-74 entering the final period.
It was reported on ABC’s broadcast that James was suffering from leg cramps, which were a major issue for him during the ill-fated 2014 N.B.A. Finals against San Antonio, when he was a member of the Miami Heat. James refused afterward to acknowledge that he had indeed been suffering from cramps — or even to use the word — admitting only that he had refused the team’s suggestion to intake intravenous fluids during his locker-room visit.
“Just a little minor injury,” James said.
Yet there was no denying the boost that the Cavaliers, most of all James, received at the beginning of the fourth quarter with a 10-2 spurt that Cleveland assembled without him. James had returned to the bench and was preparing to check back in when the struggling Love hit a huge 3-pointer for an 82-74 lead with 9 minutes 42 seconds to play, enabling James to keep sitting.
By the time James did come back, for the game’s final 8:25, he had benefited from a lengthy rest and the team had an 86-79 cushion, thanks to a unit featuring Love, Hill, Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
“It was big,” Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue said. “They bought ’Bron minutes.”
Concerns about James, at 33, being able to sustain this type of across-the-board production for three more round are inevitable after the effort he expended in this series. Then again, perhaps just a little help and good health are all James needs given the way he’s playing — at least when it comes to getting out of the Eastern Conference and securing his eighth successive trip to the N.B.A. Finals.
Entering this Game 7, James was leading the league in Player Efficiency Rating in the postseason, at 34.8. James’s teammates, through the first six games of the series, had combined to post a P.E.R. of 9.0, which would represent the lowest combined P.E.R. for one of James’s supporting casts in his 42 career playoff series.
The rest of the Cavaliers not named James, furthermore, had shot a collective 12-for-49 from the floor Sunday before James made his temporary exit. But they emerged, for once, with multiple heroes.
Love scored 8 crucial points in the first 5:25 of the fourth quarter. Hill, who had been out since Game 3 with back spasms and needed multiple painkilling injections just to be in uniform for Game 7, and wound up playing the final 19:12 without leaving the floor because Lue was desperate to get another ballhandler on the floor in the second half to ease the burden on James. And the out-of-favor Thompson, who had totaled just six rebounds in 24 minutes in the first six games of the series, grabbed seven rebounds in Sunday’s first quarter and finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
James played a bit tentatively when he first returned, but he gradually got the legs back to make his share of clinching plays. Perhaps none was bigger than his layup with 30.2 seconds remaining for a 102-96 lead, cutting down the lane to capitalize on a gutsy Kyle Korver feed.
“Best receiver in the N.B.A.,” Korver said of James.
Said the Indiana guard Victor Oladipo, who had 30 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in his effort to counter James: “He’s the best in the world. That’s what he does. Now I’ve got to get to work so I can get on that level.”
The Pacers arrived in Cleveland with their bags packed for Toronto, too, believing they could usher James and his Cavaliers into an unfathomably early summer after winning Game 6 in a 34-point rout. Indiana enjoyed a fairy-tale season after reluctantly trading the All-Star forward Paul George to Oklahoma City last June, but the Pacers will undoubtedly spend the summer lamenting their inability to capitalize on the 4 minutes and 35 seconds that James — who clearly intended to play a full 48 minutes — was forced into spectator status.
“It’s not very often where you’re able to split the game ball in half, but G-Hill and Double T did that,” James said, referring to Hill and Thompson.