CLEVELAND (AP)—LeBron James made sure the only thing that dropped for the Cavaliers were his shots.
James made a career-high seven 3-pointers, scored 40 points—28 in the first half—and got his first triple-double at home as Cleveland kept its weak grasp on a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a 98-81 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night.
By snapping a three-game losing streak and winning for just the fifth time in 15 games, Cleveland (39-37) slowed its freefall through the Central Division standings. With six games left, the Cavaliers are tied with Philadelphia for the No. 7 spot in the East, 1 1/2 games ahead of New Jersey.
James wasn’t about to let one of Cleveland’s three remaining regular-season home games slip away if he could help it. He drained five 3-pointers while single-handedly outscoring Milwaukee 22-15 in the second quarter when Cleveland took control and built a 23-point halftime lead.
“He’s just a phenomena,” Cavs interim coach Brendan Malone said.
Cleveland’s second-year star wonder, James energized a sellout crowd of 20,562 in Gund Arena, many of whom came in wondering if the Cavaliers would ever recapture the way they were playing earlier this season when it seemed their first playoff trip since 1998 was a certainty.
James added 10 assists and 10 rebounds for his third triple-double this season, and one never as badly needed. It was the first triple-double by a Cavaliers player at home since Andre Miller on Feb. 12, 2002.
“I’ve never cared about statistics,” said James, who was 7-for-13 on 3s. “But I just go out and play my game then they seem to come. The win is the most important thing right now. I played more aggressive because I saw New Jersey had won.”
The Nets (38-39), who have five games left, beat Boston 99-86 on Saturday.
Gooden also had 15 rebounds and eight assists—narrowly missing a triple-double of his own.
“I knew I was close, that’s why I played point guard toward the end,” Gooden said. “When LeBron got his 10th rebound, I told him to get out of the game.”
Michael Redd had 26 points and Desmond Mason 12 before he got thrown out in the third quarter after picking up his second technical foul. Mason got mixed up with Cleveland’s Robert Traylor and the two exchanged words and had to be separated before the officials cleaned up matters.
“I should have let it be and not kept running my mouth,” Mason said. “I made a bad decision and wasn’t there to help my team down the stretch. I take responsibility for what I did.”
After James grabbed his 10th rebound with 3:41 left to complete his triple-double, the Bucks had whittled a 25-point deficit to 10. But James capped his night with his seventh 3-pointer, one more than he made on March 20 when he scored a franchise record 56 points at Toronto.
With a give-me-the-ball look, James dominated in the second quarter. He made 5-of-7 3-pointers and scored 22 points in the period as the Cavaliers turned a seven-point lead into a 62-39 lead at half.
James added three assists in his virtuoso second, accounting for 28 of Cleveland’s 31 points in the 12 minutes. He made four 3-pointers in the final 3:01 and was just short on a fifth before the horn sounded.
“He was shooting at a hoop that was twice the size of a hula hoop,” said Malian. “That was quite a show LeBron put on.”
Ilgauskas sat out again with a dislocated right ring finger. The only link from Cleveland’s 1998 playoff team, the 7-foot-3 center still has swelling and pain in the finger and isn’t sure when he’ll return.
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” said Ilgauskas, averaging 17.2 points and 8.7 rebounds. “Everybody is frustrated.”
James’ 22 points in a quarter were one shy of the team record shared by Terry Furlow (1978) and World B. Free (1985). … Bucks F Zaza Pachulia made his third start this season, replacing Joe Smith, who did not make the trip. Smith needed four stitches after cutting his left pinky in the third quarter against Charlotte on Friday. Coach Terry Porter said Smith would be reevaluated Sunday and hopes to play in his hometown of Washington on Monday. … Cleveland has two more home games (New York and Boston) and four on the road, where they are 11-26. The Cavs are at Orlando on Monday. … Ilgauskas tore a tendon away from the bone in his finger. He’s wearing a splint, but can’t practice until the swelling subsides.