James provided the gamesmanship. Jones provided the game-winner.
That combination has the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
James scored 32 points, made two key blocks, survived a nasty collision with Brendan Haywood, and—perhaps, most importantly—did some talking to Gilbert Arenas at the free throw line late in overtime. Arenas missed both attempts, setting up Jones’ 17-foot baseline jumper with 4.8 seconds remaining in the Cavaliers’ 114-113 victory over the Washington Wizards on Friday night.
“Damon Jones, self-proclaimed ‘Best Shooter in the Universe,’ hit a dagger,” James said.
The Cavaliers won the series 4-2, their first series win since 1993, when James was 8 years old. They also won two road games in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history. They will have little time to celebrate before opening the second round at Detroit on Sunday.
“This is probably one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time,” James said. “I didn’t want to come here and just be happy to be in the playoffs.”
James made the winning shots in Games 3 and 5 in a series that included three one-point Cleveland victories, including the last two in overtime, but it was Jones’ turn in the spotlight for the finale. Marginalized by the return of Larry Hughes and the emergence of Flip Murray, Jones had been a bit player in the series. He had scored only three points and played less than 24 total minutes.
But one thing Jones can do is shoot. He was put in the game as an alternative in case James couldn’t get a decent shot. With James drawing a double-team, Jones got the ball and took advantage.
“I was going to either be the hero or the goat,” Jones said. “Tonight I was the hero so I’m glad. That’s why I’m smiling.”
Keeping with the knife-edge emotion of the series, Game 6 was tense and tight once the Cavaliers overcame the Wizards’ 14-point first-quarter lead. For 24 minutes—from early in the second quarter to early in the fourth—neither team led by more than five points.
The Wizards then blew a seven-point led with 4:48 to play in regulation and needed Arenas’ 30-footer with 2.3 seconds to play to send the game to overtime. Arenas, whose duels with James made the series compelling, finished with 36 points—but he missed the two vital free throws with his team leading by one with 15 seconds remaining in overtime. James did his best to distract Arenas by saying something between the two attempts.
“I told him if he missed both of those free throws, the game was over,” James said.
Arenas’ account was a little different. He said James told him: “If you miss this, you know who’s hitting the game-winner.”
Whatever. The point is that Arenas, who so badly wanted to match James’ heroics, missed when it mattered most.
“It is hard to swallow,” Arenas said. “You feel you let your team down. … I missed ‘em. An 80-percent free-throw shooter and you miss two. One of them nights. The basketball gods wasn’t with us in this series. We lose three games on game-winning shots.”
James shot 15-for-25 and had seven rebounds, seven assists and five turnovers. Donyell Marshall scored a season-high 28 points, and Murray had 21 for the Cavaliers.
Coach Eddie Jordan has often said the Wizards can handle adversity but not prosperity—they regularly overcome daunting deficits but often blow big leads. Their 24-10 edge was built on 9-for-12 shooting, but the Cavaliers needed only six minutes to tie the game in a run highlighted by James’ block on Arenas.
The sequence began when Arenas stole a pass near midcourt and drove for a dunk, but James challenged the shot and both players crashed to the floor. When no foul was called, Jordan screamed and kicked the ball. He and Arenas were assessed technicals, and Jordan was restrained by Daniels and two assistant coaches.
James had another run-in in the fourth quarter, when the side of his head collided with the upper body of Haywood with 9:59 to play. Haywood was called for a foul but not a flagrant one—there appeared to be nothing malicious about the contact—yet James was on his hands and knees for about a half-minute while Cleveland called timeout.
James missed both free throws—amazingly, his first attempts of the game— and committed a turnover on Cleveland’s next possession.
He eventually recovered. James sprawled on the floor to retrieve a rebound with 1:10 to play. James also blocked Jamison’s layup from behind, setting up a fast break that led to a pair of free throws that gave the Cavaliers their first lead of the fourth quarter.
In the extra period, Butler made two free throws with 30 seconds left to give the Wizards a one-point lead. The Cavaliers were working to try to retake the lead when Eric Snow launched a crosscourt pass that flew over the head of Murray and over Washington’s bench.
Arenas then missed the free throws before Jones—who has played for 10 teams in eight seasons—came through.
“It was definitely frustrating for a guy who played big minutes a year ago and to come into a situation where you’re not playing as much,” Jones said. “But I’m a professional, and coming into this situation, I came here for a reason and that was to win basketball games.”
That’s just what he did.
The Cavaliers had never won a Game 6, going 0-4 all-time until Friday. … Butler mistakenly took the free throw after the flagrant foul involving Haywood, so Haywood had to retake the free throw later in the quarter. … The Cavaliers have won seven consecutive one-point games. … James has set at least 15 franchise records in the series. Perhaps the most telling is his 182 total points through five games, easily surpassing Brad Daugherty’s mark of 158 set over seven games in the 1992 Eastern Conference finals.