CLEVELAND (AP)—None of his spinning shots, no-look passes or windmill dunks could top what LeBron James did by limping back onto the court.
With a dramatic return for the final 4:53 after spraining his left ankle, James inspired and sparked his teammates down the stretch as the Cleveland Cavaliers held on for a 114-111 win Wednesday night over the Memphis Grizzlies.
“I had to lead my team,” James said. “My 80 percent can help us win. I can’t be scared. I’ve got to be a soldier out there.”
James scored 27 points with a career-high 15 assists and nine rebounds, ignoring the pain while making several big plays in the game’s crucial moments.
When James came down on the foot of Dahntay Jones and rolled his ankle with 9:33 left, Cavaliers coach Paul Silas feared the worst.
“What did I see?” Silas said. “I saw a whole bunch of losses coming up.”
Instead, a determined James, who had to be helped off the floor by teammates, came back and made sure the first-place Cavaliers didn’t blow a lead while improving to an Eastern Conference-best 15-4 at home and 25-16 overall.
“It gets you pumped as a player,” Cavs guard Jeff McInnis said of James’ return. “I knew he was coming back. He was mad.”
It looked as though James’ night was over with the Cavaliers up 95-85. Play continued for another 10 seconds while James rolled around, pounding his hand on the floor before slinging his protective face mask and headband away in disgust.
As he was helped off, James complained to officials that he had been undercut by Jones, who had earlier dunked over James on a breakaway and talked trash to Cleveland’s star.
“I had nowhere to land,” said James, who didn’t think Jones did it intentionally.
Jones wanted to make sure that James was OK and visited him following the game. The pair shook hands and spoke briefly while James iced his sore ankle near his corner locker.
“Me and him are friends before anything,” Jones said.
James, who coincidentally sprained his other ankle in Cleveland’s 41st game a year ago, said he didn’t think the ankle was badly hurt when he first went down.
“I know tomorrow I’m going to wake up and my ankle is going to be on fire,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to walk, but I just ignored that feeling. We had to get the win. I’m sure the doctors will look at it. I could chip a nail and they would want to look at it.”
The Grizzlies, playing without injured center Pau Gasol and forward James Posey, were led by Mike Miller’s season-high 28 points. Jason Williams added 20 and Brian Cardinal 14 for Memphis, which was within 103-97 when James came back.
Cleveland’s amazing 20-year-old immediately chipped in, scoring on a driving scoop and feeding Gooden for his 15th assist as the Cavs went up 108-99 with 2:54 left. James grabbed a rebound, and although he wasn’t at full speed, drove for a layup to make it 110-101.
James’ steal then led to McInnis’ basket, giving Cleveland an 11-point lead with 1:09 to play.
Miller, who hit five 3-pointers, made two from the outside to get the Grizzlies within 112-108, but Ilgauskas made a pair of free throws with 17 seconds left.
“We came in here kind of shorthanded, and they were, too, so it’s not an excuse,” Miller said. “They executed better down the stretch. He (James) came back in and made some plays.”
McInnis scored 12 points in 39 minutes after missing two games with a sprained left foot. The Cavaliers, who were missing super-sub Anderson Varejao, lost starter Ira Newble in the first quarter with an Achilles injury.
“Ira’s not doing well,” Silas said. “It really flared up on him.”
Memphis coach Mike Fratello coached in Gund Arena for the first time since being fired by the Cavs after the 1998-99 season. … Silas would like to add another big man, but he’s not going to push GM Jim Paxson for Jayson Williams, the former All-Star who faces reckless manslaughter charges related to a 2002 shooting at his New Jersey mansion. Williams began his comeback by signing with the CBA’s Idaho Stampede last week. … As part of their 35th anniversary celebration, the Cavaliers saluted their 1970-71 expansion team, which went 15-67 under coach Bill Fitch. … Memphis used its 15th different starting lineup. … James went over the 1,000-point plateau in his 41st game, eight fewer than it took him a year ago.