For the first time in his NBA life, LeBron James, who hadn't lost a single first-round game since 2012 coming into these playoffs, will face a first-round elimination game when the Cavaliers play host to the Pacers for Game 7 on Sunday. At once, it's hard to believe and utterly unsurprising that Cleveland finds itself in this situation. They're a supremely flawed team only a basketball fool would trust. Yet they have an almost flawless player only a fool would bet against.
None of it makes sense.
It's all pretty clear.
Such is the confusion surrounding an organization stuck at an impasse between past and future. The here and now, all season long, has felt like nothing more than a final piece of context, an increasingly ominous prologue to the summer, when LeBron, once again, will determine the fate of the franchise with his decision to stay or go. Maybe the greatest Game 7 player in NBA history, it's hard to imagine he'll put forth anything less than a heroic basketball effort on Sunday. That's about the only thing we can say for certain.
After that, who knows? Maybe the Cavs pull out the win and do this whole dance again next round against the Raptors. Maybe nothing LeBron does will be enough -- maybe it was never going to be enough, and an entirely different dance will start as background to what has quickly become a fascinating postseason. Either way, LeBron isn't going anywhere until we know where he'll end up. It's fair to wonder how much influence, if any at all, this game on Sunday will have on all this.
Personally, I don't think it matters one bit. I think LeBron is gone. I think he was gone a long time ago. I doubt very much that I'm alone in that thinking. In fact, I think there's a strange inverse happening in that the more LeBron does to keep the Cavs alive, the more it sets him up to leave them for dead.
In three wins this postseason, LeBron is averaging 40.7 points on 61-percent shooting, 11.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists. That's what it takes for this Cavs team to squeak past a No. 5 seed in the first round one game at a time. It's too big a burden, and with the Cavs' books suffocating beneath the relative dead weight of contracts like Tristan Thompson, George Hill, J.R. Smith, and even Kevin Love to some degree, chances are the load won't be getting lighter any time soon.
Seriously, how far can one man go without help?
All of which gives this game on Sunday its own kind of lightness. It feels like LeBron's decision is already made, so whatever he can do for the rest of these playoffs, however long they might last, is gravy. He got Cleveland its championship. If the Cavs were, in any way, a true championship contender, there would be a thousand pounds of pressure on this Game 7. Now we can all just enjoy the greatest player in the world playing with nothing to lose.
That is a scary thought for the Pacers, who have been the better team in this series but are in their own elimination game simply because they don't have LeBron -- who, by the way, has won the past four Game 7s he has played in, including the one that got the Cavs that aforementioned 2016 championship against the Warriors. In six career Game 7s, LeBron is averaging better than 33 points and nine rebounds. I wouldn't be surprised if he puts 45-plus on Indiana on Sunday.
By the same token, I also wouldn't be surprised if the Pacers jump out early because -- again -- they're just a better team, and LeBron ends up playing out the second half with one foot out the door. He has been known to get oddly passive at bizarre times in his career. If you'll recall, the last time he left Cleveland, he did so on the heels of a pretty puzzling performance against the Celtics in 2010, in which he went long stretches of multiple games looking utterly disinterested.
This game on Sunday is as much about smoothing LeBron's runway out of Cleveland as it is delaying the Cavs' seemingly inevitable elimination from these playoffs, whenever that might happen. Just leave on a good note. People will understand that this time around. They know LeBron's prime years are dwindling, even as he continues to defy age. They'll let him go this time ... as long as he doesn't forget to show up for the potential swan song.