INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — LeBron James hurts everywhere, the King of Pain.
One win from taking the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals, and one step closer to a title he covets more than any other, James leaned against a padded wall on Monday and hardly resembled basketball’s most undeniable force.
“I’m feeling all right,” he said, forcing a smile that showed he wasn’t being entirely truthful. “I’ve been better, but I’ve been worse. I think I’ve been worse.”
James moved slowly and not with his usual grace one day after his brilliant performance in Game 3 lifted Cleveland to a 114-111 win over the Atlanta Hawks in overtime, moving the Cavs within a victory of their first Finals appearance since 2007.
James wore a sleeve on his right calf, which cramped so severely he asked to be taken out Sunday night before re-considering. Instead, he pushed through the pain and delivered 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists — all after an 0-for-10 shooting start — to help the Cavs take a 3-0 series lead.
He’s battered, not beaten. James isn’t going to let anything stop him. Not now. Not this close to his fifth straight Finals or a championship.
“When you want to win, you’ve got to sacrifice your body feeling good,” he said. “That’s just what it’s about.”
With a win on Tuesday night, the Cavs can clinch the Eastern Conference title and get some rest before a Finals matchup presumably against Golden State, which leads Houston 3-0 heading into Monday’s Game 4. James has been down this path before, but never one so bumpy.
Cleveland’s season has been strewn with obstacles: extreme expectations, chemistry issues, trades and injuries, including ones in the postseason to forward Kevin Love and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, who has missed the past two games with an injured left knee. James has never been on a team that’s had to surmount as much.
Before the season began, James predicted this — molding a new team into a title contender — would be the greatest challenge of his career.
“I felt it would be, and it is,” he said.
The Cavs need one more win over the rising Hawks, who showed resiliency in Game 3 by overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth when they appeared done. One play here, one there and Atlanta wouldn’t be in a 3-0 hole that no team in league history has been able to climb from.
Despite overwhelming odds, the Hawks won’t quit.
“No matter what happens, we’re still going to be confident,” forward Paul Millsap said. “We believe in our team. We believe in the guys that we have. We feel like we can do something special, whether this year, next year, whatever. We’re going to stick to this. It’s not over ‘til it’s over.”
For James, the only ending he can envision is winning his third title and ending Cleveland’s 51-year championship drought.
“It’s been my goal since I got back here, not only to get back, but to win, win the whole thing,” he said. “That’s my goal. It’s part of my drive. That’s what it’s about.”
There are some other subplots heading into Game 4:
While his teammates got treatment and relaxed after a draining game, Irving went through another vigorous workout as Cleveland’s coaching staff and medical team kept a close eye on him.
Cavs coach David Blatt said Irving remains a game-time decision for Tuesday and the team’s lead in the series has no bearing on whether he’ll play.
“We need Kyrie on the court, and we’re not really thinking about resting him as much as we’re thinking about him being healthy to play basketball,” Blatt said. “We need him on the court, whether we’re up 1-0 or 2-1 or 3-0.”
After making strong inferences they felt Cavs guard Matthew Dellavedova plays dirty, the Hawks were quiet about the subject.
The scrappy Dellavedova got involved in a loose-ball scramble that ended with Atlanta forward Al Horford hitting him with an elbow and being ejected. Following Game 3, Horford said Dellavedova has “gotta learn” to play with more restraint.
Earlier in the series, Dellavedova injured Kyle Korver when he dived on the floor and rolled up on the Atlanta guard’s ankle. Korver is out for the rest of the playoffs.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was careful with his words about Horford’s ejection.
“The officials in our league have a difficult job,” he said. “We obviously see it a little differently. But that’s part of the game and part of those difficult situations. We’re moving forward.”
Forward Tristan Thompson’s value to the Cavs grows daily. With Love out, he’s playing more and the four-year veteran, who will be a free agent this summer, has been almost unstoppable on the boards.
“Tristan should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career,” James said. “There’s no reason why he shouldn’t. This guy is 24 years old. He’s played in 340-plus straight games, and he’s gotten better every single season. It’s almost like what more can you ask out of a guy even though we ask for more out of him?”