CLEVELAND (AP)—Flat on his back, LeBron James grimaced as he looked toward the arena rafters, where giant banners spelled out his team’s playoff motto: “RISE UP!”
And he did.
Ignoring a sprained left ankle, James stayed in the game to score 23 points and Larry Hughes added 27 Sunday, lifting the Cleveland Cavaliers over the depleted Washington Wizards 97-82 in the opener of this Eastern Conference series.
James turned his ankle on a drive in the third quarter but refused to come out, adding nine rebounds and seven assists in 44 minutes.
“I had no intention of not coming back,” he said. “First game of the playoffs, we’ve got to set a tone. If I was able to limp on it, I was going to be in there.”
However, Game 1 was no walk in the park for the Cavs on a beautiful, sunny spring day in Cleveland.
That’s when the Cavaliers, much more playoff savvy than they were a year ago, moved their attack inside and pounded the ball to 7-foot-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He scored seven straight points to help Cleveland push its lead to 89-74 with five minutes left.
Ilgauskas, bothered by a sore ankle when the Cavs beat the Wizards in a six-game series a year ago, scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth period.
“When the big fella is feeling good and he wants it, you have to give it to him,” James said.
Cleveland also clamped down on the Wizards in the fourth, holding them to 5-of-20 shooting and making Jamison go 1-of-7 for his only three points in the last 16 minutes.
“We missed some open shots,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “I thought we executed well enough. It was a game. Their defense was good, but we’ve got to finish the plays.”
James appeared as if his second postseason as a pro might be in jeopardy when he crumpled to the floor with 8:03 left in the third.
On a drive, James rose for a floater from about 10 feet. As the ball dropped in, James came down on Etan Thomas’ right foot, twisting his ankle and falling in obvious pain.
The injury looked severe and the fired-up Cleveland crowd moaned when James began slapping his hand on the floor. But after about a minute, James popped up and walked to the bench with hardly a limp.
“That made everybody’s heart jump a little bit,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said. “You don’t want to see that happen to any of your guys, let alone LeBron.”
James expects a sore ankle Monday, but he’s certain he’ll be ready for Game 2 of the best-of-seven series Wednesday.
The scary moment sparked an 11-2 run by the Cavaliers. They appeared ready to bury the Wizards, but Washington hung tough and a 3-pointer by Antonio Daniels with 1.2 seconds left made it 74-67 with 12 minutes to go.
James was little more than a decoy the rest of the way. He made only two hard drives, deferring to Hughes and Ilgauskas.
“He’s a machine, man,” said Hayes, who tried to make James work extra hard on offense. “You’ve just got to do something to slow him down.”
Hughes was just as tough on the Wizards, his former team. Not only did he knock down jumpers and pick up the slack when James got hurt, but Hughes’ familiarity with Washington’s offense allowed him to yell out the Wizards’ plays.
“We were worried about LeBron, we were worried about the big fella down low and trying to box out Drew Gooden,” Jamison said. “Larry did a great job of getting in the teeth of the defense.”
After the Wizards trimmed a 10-point deficit to four, Hughes drained a 3-pointer at the halftime horn to give Cleveland a 48-41 lead.
“We were struggling through most of the first half,” Hughes said. “I was a little hesitant, a little tentative on both ends, so to get one to go in and push the lead to seven was good.”
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s assertion that anything short of the conference finals would be a failure didn’t seem to sit well with James. Gilbert said, “Organizations and people are like trees—you’re either growing or dying. … To call the season a success in growth, you want to see yourself up one notch.” Does James feel the same sense of urgency? “No,” he said. “He (Gilbert) has his own opinion. I play for my teammates. You can’t go and contemplate on what other people say.” … Butler is to have his cast removed Monday and is hoping to return for Game 3. … The Wizards return to Washington for practice the next two days.