CLEVELAND (AP)—LeBron James wasn’t going to be questioned, criticized or blamed for not doing enough.
Not in the biggest game of his life.
The Cavaliers needed a victory, and James willed them to one.
He scored 32 points with nine rebounds and nine assists in the most important 48 minutes of his blossoming NBA career, helping Cleveland to an 88-82 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night that pulled the Cavaliers within 2-1 in the Eastern Conference finals.
“LeBron stepped up and put us on his shoulders,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said. “He said, ‘Come along for the ride.’ And we all hopped on.”
James, rising to the occasion with a hometown crowd hanging on his every dribble, scored 12 points in the fourth quarter and rookie Daniel Gibson came up with several key plays down the stretch to help his more celebrated teammate.
In Game 1 at Detroit, James was panned for not taking the Cavs’ final shot in a 79-76 loss. In Game 2, James tried to be the last-second hero but was swarmed upon and couldn’t get off a clean attempt in the foul lane in the waning moments as the Pistons won again.
James left nothing to chance this time, hitting a 3-pointer with 2:34 left and a 16-foot jumper in the last 23 seconds to give Cleveland its first win in the conference finals since May 25, 1992, against Chicago.
“You learn from mistakes, you learn from losses, but this game doesn’t put something on me where it’s, ‘Hey, I’ve finally done it,”’ James said. “This was a big game. We won it and we have to move on.”
“We gave him too many options,” Tayshaun Prince said. “He picked us apart driving to the basket. But that’s how it is if his jump shot is on.”
The Pistons were the East’s best road team during the regular season and came in 4-1 so far in these playoffs outside of Auburn Hills, Mich. Detroit, which needed seven games to put away the Cavs in last year’s playoffs, could have begun planning its finals itinerary with another road win.
James refused to allow it.
Cleveland’s superstar made sure he was primed for one of this championship-starved city’s biggest nights of basketball. He broke from his usual pregame routine, and after arriving three hours before tipoff, he shot 3-pointers and jumpers on the arena’s main floor for the first time this season.
“I’ve got to be ready,” said James, who wore a black sleeveless “Witness” T-shirt during his workout. “This is probably the biggest game of my life, and probably one of the biggest games in Cavaliers history. I’ve got to recognize that. I have to be prepared to go out there.
“It’s all out.”
He played like it.
With the scored tied 68-all, James made another of those legacy-defining plays. On the left side, he burst through and down the lane to deliver a posterizing dunk on Wallace, who fouled Cleveland’s forward.
“It was sick,” Gibson said. “It really sparked the club when he did it, and he makes those type of plays all the time. It’s incredible to see.”
The Pistons were equally impressed.
“He played great,” Rip Hamilton said. “He made some tough shots, some step-back 3s down the stretch. He had like nine assists, so we just have to control him a little bit better, take away his easy looks.”
James missed the free throw after his dunk on Wallace, but fed Ilgauskas for a layup on the Cavs’ next trip to make it 72-68 with 6:22 remaining. Moments later, he whipped a pass to Gibson, who drained a 3-pointer to make it 77-72.
With Cleveland clinging to a five-point lead, Gibson stole the ball from Prince, and on the Cavs’ next possession, James stepped back and swished a 3-pointer to make it 84-76, sending the sellout crowd of 20,562 into a frenzy.
The Pistons wouldn’t go quietly and scored six straight points before James responded again, driving the right side and hitting a tough shot over Hamilton— the game-icing shot he and the Cavs desperately needed.
“That sealed the deal,” Gooden said.
After Prince missed, Gooden hit two free throws to close the scoring, and as the clock expired, James took the ball and handed it to referee Tom Washington, perhaps his most satisfying pass of the night.
“We ain’t done yet,” he said.
Hughes will get an MRI on Tuesday for a sprained left foot. … The game was delayed in the first because of condensation dropping from the scoreboard following the Cavs’ over-the-top pregame spectacle complete with giant, fire-spewing swords and smoke machines. … The Cavaliers, who lost to Boston (six games) in 1976 and Chicago (six) in 1992 are 5-10 in the Eastern Conference finals. … Detroit coach Flip Saunders, who grew in the Cleveland suburb of Cuyahoga Heights, always loves coming home. “It was good to go see mom and dad, and good to have some pierogies,” he cracked. … Detroit’s Kid Rock sat courtside, as did Browns linebacker Willie McGinest. … James has at least seven assists in 12 of 13 playoff games.