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The Indiana Pacers gave it their best shot, only to be vanquished by greatness.
Greatness in the form of LeBron James, who had 45 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals in 43 minutes as the Cleveland Cavaliers prevailed, 105-101, in Game 7 of a first-round series at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday.
Afterward, the Pacers, who won only two games less than the Cavaliers, gave kudos to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
“They won the series,” Pacers point guard Darren Collison said. “You’ve got to give them credit. LeBron was amazing. Some of their guys stepped up in a big-time game.”
Especially, Tristan Thompson, who was a gametime decision by Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue to start. He responded with 15 points, 10 boards, an assist and an emphatic blocked shot in 35 minutes.
Thompson, a starter on the Cleveland teams that reached the NBA Finals the last three seasons, winning the title in 2016, had six points and seven rebounds before the game was 10 minutes old Sunday.
“I didn’t know he was starting until they announced it,” Pacers center Myles Turner said. “He was big on the glass and made some big shots.”
Indiana coach Nate McMillan acknowledged Thompson’s impact.
“You know, now you’re trying to defend LeBron,” he said. “At times, you’re sending double teams. You’re trying to cover the perimeter and now you got Thompson in there, in the middle, who is just aggressive.
“You need two guy, so it puts a lot of pressure on the defense when you’re trying to help in other areas and Tristan is on the boards, pounding you, giving them extra opportunities.”
Pacers star Victor Oladipo, who had 30 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three steals in 41 minutes, had nothing but great things to say about James.
“Amazing. He did what he always does,” he said. “It’s not really shocking. He’s the best in the world. That’s what the best does. Now, I’ve got to work to get on that level.”
Led by James and Thompson, Cleveland came roaring out of the starting blocks and led after one quarter, 31-19.
“They just kind of jumped on us,” Pacers forward Thaddeus Young said. “We’ve been able to recover in previous games, but they did a really good job.”
Lance Stephenson, a longtime antagonist of James, was victimized by the Cleveland superstar. Matched up against Stephenson, James took him the to block on five consecutive second-quarter possessions and the Cavaliers scored on all five — the first two off James assists to teammates and the other three by on hoops by James himself.
Afterward, Stephenson gave props to the Cavaliers.
“I want to give it up for Cleveland,” he said. “The whole series, they kept their composure, they earned it.
“They’re an excellent team.”
In turn, James praised the young Pacers, the first team to push him to an elimination game in the first round of the playoffs in this, his 13th foray into the postseason. His teams have now eliminated Indiana from the playoffs in five of the last seven seasons.
“Kudos. Big shout out to the Indiana Pacers, first of all,” James, now 13-0 in first-round series in his career, said. “They were a tough team. They had the head of the snake in Vic (Oladipo). Unbelievable jump from last year to this year. We all saw that. He’s proven why he’s a franchise-caliber player.
“Everybody on down. They just got a well-rounded team. They definitely pushed us. Pushed us to the brink, basically.”
To which Oladipo believes the Pacers have earned their stripes in the league.
“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” he said. “That’s just how I feel. Nobody thought we would be here, no one, not one person but us in the locker room. … I feel like we’ve earned our respect from everyone.”