INDIANAPOLIS — LeBron James stuck to the old script Sunday.
Again, he bailed out the Cleveland Cavaliers. And again, he sent the Indiana Pacers home for vacation.
On yet another milestone day for basketball’s king, James’ crowning achievement was making the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:08 to play and helping the defending champions hold on for a series-clinching 106-102 victory at Indiana.
“You have to mentally challenge yourself every year and go out and try to do what’s right — putting your body on the line, putting your team on the line and trying to be successful,” James said. “It’s very hard.”
But the four-time MVP makes it look easy. He finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks.
By winning his 21st consecutive first-round game, James broke a tie with Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson and James Worthy for the longest streak under the NBA’s current playoff format. By sweeping a series for the 10th time, James broke a tie with Tim Duncan for the most in a career, according to Elias Sports Bureau. By going 13 of 25 from the field, he pulled into a tie with Kobe Bryant for the fourth highest postseason field goal total with 2,014.
And by holding on for the win, James improved to 52-0 in the playoffs when his team takes a double-digit lead into the fourth quarter.
James considered the milestones a footnote on a day the Cavs blew a 13-point lead and allowed the Pacers to come all the way back and take a 102-100 lead with 1:31 to go.
“They were giving it all they had,” James said. “Obviously, a loss would have ended their season. We just had to weather the storm once again.”
Of course that’s when James took the cue and came to the rescue.
He made the long 3 to give Cleveland the lead, poked the ball away from Young on the next possession, grabbed the rebound when Paul George missed a 3 with 1.9 seconds to go that could have forced overtime and, of course, made 1 of 2 free throws to seal the win.
Now Cleveland takes a seven-game winning streak into the conference semifinals against either Milwaukee or Toronto.
For Indiana, it will go down as yet another tormenting chapter in their rivalry with James.
James’ teams have eliminated the Pacers four times in six years and completed the first-four game sweep in Indiana’s NBA history. Cleveland finished the season 7-1 against the Pacers, winning the last four with a defensive stand, a rare 25-point game from three players, the largest second-half comeback in playoff history and now James’ knockout punch.
Lance Stephenson led the Pacers with 22 points. George had a series-low 15.
“It’s real frustrating to continue on losing to the same team or same person,” George said. “Ultimately, he (James) is who I’m always going to have to see and face.”
The Pacers sure didn’t make it easy, though.
They charged back from a 96-83 deficit with a 7-0 spurt early in the in the fourth quarter. Then they methodically continued chipping away until Young tied the score at 100 and then gave them the lead.
But James answered with the go-ahead 3.
Rockets 113, Thunder 109: Nene scored 28 points on perfect shooting from the field to help Houston take a 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.
Nene made all 12 of his shots and had 10 rebounds. He helped the Rockets overcome an off night by James Harden, who finished with 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting.
Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each scored 18 points for the Rockets. Trevor Ariza had 14.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in Houston.
Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook had a triple-double by halftime and finished with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists. The Thunder said Westbrook joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to claim three consecutive playoff triple-doubles.
Steven Adams scored 18 points and Victor Oladipo added 15 for the Thunder.
Westbrook had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists at the break. He grabbed the 10th rebound in the final second of the second quarter, and the Thunder led 58-54 at intermission. Meanwhile, Harden made just 2 of 9 shots and scored just six points in the first half.
The Thunder opened the second half with a 10-2 run, but Houston closed to 77-73 at the end of the third quarter.
Adams made the first of two free throws with 21.7 seconds remaining to cut Oklahoma City’s deficit to four. He rebounded his missed second free throw and found Westbrook for a 3-pointer that cut Houston’s lead to one point. But the Thunder lost track of Nene on the other end, and he converted a three-point play. Gordon’s two free throws with 6.2 seconds made it a four-point game.
Celtics 104, Bulls 95: Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points as Boston tied up the first-round playoff series at 2-all.
Boston blew a 20-point lead, but Thomas keyed a third-quarter run that put the Celtics back on top after Chicago briefly went ahead.
Gerald Green made four 3-pointers on his way to 18 points, helping the top-seeded Celtics return the favor in Chicago after dropping the first two games at home. Al Horford added 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Game 5 is Wednesday in Boston.
Jimmy Butler carried the Bulls with 33 points and nine assists. Nikola Mirotic and seldom-used Isaiah Canaan each scored 13 points, but Dwyane Wade finished with just 11.
Canaan made his first appearance since April 10, with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg searching for help at point guard with Rajon Rondo missing his second straight game because of a broken right thumb.
The Celtics led by 20 in the second quarter and were still up 10 in the third when Chicago scored 12 straight. The Bulls went ahead 65-63 on Robin Lopez’s hook shot with 4:35 left in the quarter.
Thomas answered with back-to-back layups and scored 10 points in a 12-0 run that gave the Celtics a 75-65 lead, and they withstood a push by the Bulls early in the fourth.
With Thomas and Green each scoring 16 in the first half, the Celtics carried a 57-46 lead into the break.
Butler led the Bulls with 17 in the half. But the offense struggled in a big way with Rondo unavailable. Jerian Grant started and went to the bench after about five ineffective minutes. Michael Carter-Williams then picked up two quick fouls, forcing the Bulls to go with Canaan in the first quarter.
The Celtics, meanwhile, led 41-21 early in the second quarter. But things started to turn after Canaan stole the ball from Marcus Smart and scored on a layup.
Smart feigned throwing the ball at Butler. The two came nose to nose, resulting in technical fouls for both players, and the Bulls started to shoot their way back into it.
Mirotic hit a pair of 3-pointers and scored eight in the quarter. Bobby Portis cut it to 52-42 with his basket late in the half, and Butler hit two free throws with 22.6 seconds left to make it 57-46.
Note: The NBA fined Rondo for attempting to trip Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder from the bench in Game 3. Crowder jawed at the Bulls bench after hitting a jumper and Rondo extended his leg as Crowder walked by.