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Jerry Sullivan: Rare early crisis for LeBron, Cavs

In recent years, it's become a reflex to pencil LeBron James on through to the NBA Finals. Going back to the year he took his talents to Miami in 2010-11, James's teams have reached the championship series seven years in a row, winning a staggering 21 straight Eastern Conference series along the way.

LeBron has rarely been tested during that run. Entering this postseason, his teams had swept the first-round series five straight years. He hadn't lost a single game in the first round since 2012. Over the last three years, the Cavs were 36-5 in the Eastern playoffs, with six sweeps in the nine series. They trailed only once in any series before the Finals, to the Bulls in the 2015 conference semifinals.

But I hope you have an eraser on that pencil, because James and the Cavaliers are in serious trouble in their first-round series with the Pacers. The Cavs lost on Friday, 92-90, and trail two games to one heading into Sunday night's fourth game at Indiana.

James is in his 13th straight postseason. This is the first time his team has been down after three games in the opening round. He also suffered his first Game One loss ever in an opening-round series. In those 12 first-round series wins with the Cavs and Heat, his team was never even extended to a seventh game.

So this qualifies as a major crisis for James in one of his most trying seasons. He played at an MVP level, but at midseason the Cavs were a disjointed bunch, a sorry defensive team with no chemistry. So at the Feb. 8 trade deadline, they moved out half their roster and rebuilt a supposed title contender on the fly.

This current plight is no real surprise. It was fashionable to say that the Cavs got better when they brought in Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. But even with a superstar like LeBron, it's hard to reconstruct an NBA team and expect it to be functioning at a high level in two months.

From what I've seen in the series, the Cavs are still struggling to find themselves. They have a fragile quality. A playoff series is an entirely different challenge, a more physical exercise. The new guys haven't risen to the challenge. A tougher, more cohesive Pacers team has exposed them so far.

When the Cavs made all the trades, I felt it wasn't so much who was coming but who still wasn't there: Kyrie Irving. When the Cavs dealt Irving last summer, they lost a transcendent offensive talent, someone to take the burden off James. It's especially vital in the playoffs, when teams buckle down on defense and it becomes more of a half-court game.

There's no one better at improvising with the ball than Irving. As great as James was two years ago, it was Kyrie who hit the shot that won the title against Golden State. People forget Irving averaged 30 points in the last three games of that comeback against the Warriors. You don't easily replace that.

Several times Friday, I thought how the Cavs could have used Irving. They had a 17-point lead, but Indiana showed no fear. They had beaten Cleveland three of four in the regular season. They're a confident bunch, with an emerging star guard in Victor Oladipo and a long-range assassin in Bojan Bogdanovic.

James can dominate offensively when he needs to, but he's always better with complementary scorers to help carry the load. He and Kevin Love combined for 47 of the Cavs' 90 points, and Love shot just twice after halftime. George Hill was the only other guy in double figures with 13, only four after halftime. Cleveland scored 33 points in an abysmal second half.

Indiana matches up well with the Cavs, with several players who take turns guarding James and getting physical. Lance Stevenson loves tweaking LeBron. Bogdanovic can put a body on him. Thaddeus Young, who was embarrassed when James scored Cleveland's first 16 points in Game Two, was a defensive force Friday.

One of the pivotal plays of the night came after James got pressure near midcourt in the fourth quarter. The Cavs turned it over and, rather than hustle back, LeBron jogged back in disgust over the no-call. Bogdanovic nailed a three-pointer on the break, got fouled and converted a four-point play.

Afterwards, James said he wasn't about to "throw my teammates under the bus." But that no-hustle played revealed a lot. James seemed weary and discouraged in the stretch, as if he suspects this team lacks genuine playoff character.

I've learned never to underestimate LeBron. He has some of his greatest games when he's down – the 46 points in Game Two, for example. His team has trailed an Eastern series after three games once in seven years; they won three in a row to close out Chicago. I could see the Cavs coming back to win. LeBron will get free throws, bank on that. But it will be an uncommon struggle and it's only the first round.

The road would get tougher in an improving East. The Raptors, who take a 2-1 series lead into Game Four at Washington on Sunday, don't get much respect, but they won a franchise-record 59 games and won't be a pushover any longer. Then there's red-hot Philadelphia, which just won 18 of 19 and has Joel Embiid back.

This is good news for the NBA, which took a lot of heat a year ago when the Cavs and Warriors breezed to the Finals and sapped the drama out of the first three rounds. This year's conference battles should be a lot more compelling. A likely Houston-Golden State matchup would be a great Western final.

Maybe James will rise up and get to the Finals for an eighth straight season. But the way it looks now, he'll be fortunate to get out of the first round.

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