LeBron James is answering the questions about whether he can be a clutch player. In the process, he’s provided a definitive response to the question of whether the Cleveland Cavaliers will make the playoffs.
The Cavaliers could move within one victory of clinching their first postseason berth in eight years if James can get a win over the only NBA team he’s never beaten, the Houston Rockets.
Though considered among the league’s top players, James often has been criticized for his inability to come up with big plays or shots when it mattered most. Those critics were quieted this week.
James hit the first game-winning shot of his career with 0.9 seconds left in overtime of Cleveland’s 120-118 victory over Charlotte on Wednesday. His pass to Flip Murray, a play James was forced to make as he was trapped by a swarming defense near midcourt, resulted in the game-tying 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left in regulation.
It was more of the same from James on Friday, when he scored 19 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Cavaliers to a 94-82 win over Boston.
“I wanted to be aggressive and put them away,” James said. “It’s a big win, but we can’t slip. We’re riding high, but have to keep our focus.
“We have to go into Houston and work hard and try to get another win.”
A victory in this game, along with a loss by Chicago on Sunday, would cut Cleveland’s magic number for wrapping up a playoff spot to one. The Cavs haven’t been part of the postseason since 1998, when James was 13 years old.
Cleveland, owner of the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, has won four in a row.
“We’re learning to close out games,” said Donyell Marshall, who had 14 points Friday. “Winning games like this shows we’re a playoff team. We’re going to go, we know that.”
James has averaged 36.5 points, 10.0 assists and 9.0 rebounds over the last two games. Continuing that pace should help James finally defeat the Rockets, having lost all five times he’s faced them.
He has averaged just 16.4 points in those five meetings. James did score 32 in the first matchup this season, but had only two in the fourth quarter and Houston won 90-81 behind Tracy McGrady’s 34 points.
McGrady won’t be around for the rematch, sidelined the last 2 1/2 weeks with back problems and possibly out for the season. Houston is 3-19 without him.
One of those wins came in the Rockets’ most recent contest as they ended a six-game losing streak with a 93-92 victory over New Orleans on Thursday.
The Rockets are 11th in the Western Conference and nine games under .500, but are hanging on to slim playoff hopes with 13 games remaining.
“You just got to start with a win,” Alston said. “That way the snowball effect can start going uphill instead of downhill.”