INDIANAPOLIS - The buzzer sounded to end what might best be described as an excruciating victory, and the ball happened to be in the hands of LeBron James at that moment. He tossed it away with an air of what might best be described as disgust. He then dished out the customary high-fives to teammates, never once even hinting at a smile.
It was an odd ending to a curious game. Which isn't to say it wasn't fitting.
This result, 104-100 in favor of Cleveland, evened the Cavs' first-round playoff series against the Pacers at two games each. There is little doubt that had this gone the other way, the Cavs would would have been unable to muster the three consecutive victories necessary to advance. The victory essentially saved Cleveland's season.
The question at this point, after what we all saw Sunday night, is whether the season actually is worth saving.
"Down 3-1, it's such a huge difference. You don't ever want to go down 3-1 versus anybody, no matter if it's the first round all the way up to the Finals. It's too difficult," James told reporters after Game 4. "With them coming in our building and taking away home-court advantage Game 1, we knew in order to get the series back to us having home court, we needed to win on their floor.
"We had a great opportunity in Game 3, but I've always talked about the best teacher is experience. And we were able to experience that in Game 3, and not just falter - like we did in Game 3 - tonight when they made a run."
We know he's conquered that circumstance before, although he was less alone when he pulled it off against the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. In this game, James was a player surrounded more by a series of moments or sequences than a collection of teammates. A handful of Cavaliers were effective enough here and there for James to conjure the whole basket of leftovers into something palatable.
Veteran guard J.R. Smith made four 3-pointers, including a 60-footer at the first-quarter buzzer, and was the defender of record as Indiana star Victor Oladipo quick-triggered himself into a 5-of-20 shooting night. Guard Jordan Clarkson scored 12 points (10 in the second quarter). Kyle Korver made four 3-pointers, including two in the final four minutes.
Kevin Love scored only five points, though, on 2-of-10 shooting. Rodney Hood and Larry Nance, expected to add youth and spark to the Cavs following their trade-deadline acquisititon, were trusted a combined 29 minutes by coach Tyronn Lue. Take away James' numbers, and the Cavaliers shot 41 percent. Thing is, James is one of them. So they get to count his 32 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. He will be a Cavalier at least until this team completes its final 2018 playoff series, and that fact makes it always perilous to suggest his teams aren't up to whatever challenges confront them.
"It's 2-2. We came over in a hostile environment and got a big win, after a big letdown last game," Lue said. "I thought we played good enough to win our last game, and when you lose a tough game like that it's hard to bounce back, especially on the road. It's a tribute to our guys' character, who they are."
It's also a declaration of who the Pacers aren't, at least not at this stage. With such a glorious opportunity beckoning to take complete control of the series, to having three shots at the one victory that would remain to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, Oladipo would not surrender to the reality this was not his night, not even after he'd shot 3-of-12 in the first three periods.
He was 2-of-8 in the final quarter, trying and missing four jump shots after Indiana had squeezed to a 92-89 lead with 6:12 left on a beastly tip-in by power forward Thaddeus Young and a technical free throw Oladipo added when Lance Stephenson baited James into an elbow and a T.
"I thought we were frantic offensively throughout the game," coach Nate McMillan said. "I didn't think we played the game the right way. I thought there were some quick shots, some heroic shots, that were taken throughout this game. You're not going to win, you play the game like that. I saw it throughout the game, and certainly at the end of the game.
"I thought we as a team forced some shots... It wasn't just Victor. I thought we as a unit played the game like that."
The Cavaliers might not be exceptional, but they are good enough to take what is given to them.
And they still have James, who launched his team's closing surge with a ludicrously sudden bank shot in Stephenson's face that made it a 92-91 game. A single Oladipo free throw moved that up a notch, but he bricked another jumper with 10 seconds still to shoot, and James propelled a fast break that eventually got the ball to Korver for an open 3-pointer - Cleveland led, 94-93. James found Korver again 79 seconds later, and a 99-95 lead looked close to insurmountable with the way the Pacers were (not) running their offense.
And with James on the floor, still in a Cavs uniform.
He was out there for 46 minutes, including the entire second half.
"I'm just trying to save pockets of energy, especially in the second half, when I know it's going to be a possession game," James said. "Both teams are playing equal basketball, both teams are playing well defensively. I'm just trying to save energy for when I know I'm going to be needed to make a play not only for myself, but for my teammates."
That's what you realize after he is done playing, and then talking. A team with LeBron James in the lineup has a chance in any game, in any series. Even this team.