CLEVELAND (AP)—As his teammates danced and carried on while wearing baseball caps and T-shirts proclaiming “Champions,” LeBron James walked around in a daze with a smile etched across his face.
“This is like a dream,” he said, shaking his head. “This is probably the best feeling that I’ve ever had in my life.”
An entire city felt the same.
For the first time in a long time, championship-starved Cleveland has something to feel good about.
The Cavaliers, once the punch line to jokes and Michael Jordan’s favorite foil, are Eastern Conference champions—and on their way to the NBA finals.
Lugging an entire region’s hopes with him on every trip to the basket, James had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and unflappable rookie Daniel Gibson added 31 points—19 in the fourth quarter—to give the Cavaliers a 98-82 victory in Game 6 against the Detroit Pistons.
Cleveland, a city that hasn’t celebrated a world championship since the Browns won an NFL title in 1964, has the next closest thing. And now the Cavs, who won only 17 games the year before James arrived from just down the Interstate in Akron, will meet the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the finals on Thursday night.
James, who scored 48 points in Cleveland’s double-overtime win in Game 5, didn’t have to carry the Cavs by himself.
Gibson gave him all the help he needed.
The slender second-round pick from Texas, who didn’t become a major contributor until March, outshined his superstar teammate. Gibson made three 3-pointers in the first 2:16 of the fourth and drilled another long-range jumper with 6:52 left, setting off a massive celebration in Quicken Loans Arena.
“If I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me up,” Gibson said. “This was perfect, to win it for Cleveland.”
The Cavaliers are only third team to come back from an 0-2 deficit in a conference finals, joining the 1971 Baltimore Bullets and 1993 Chicago Bulls.
The season couldn’t have ended worse for the top-seeded Pistons, making their fifth straight appearance in the conference finals.
Rasheed Wallace fouled out and then got thrown out after being slapped with two technicals by referee Eddie Rush with 7:44 to play. Rip Hamilton, too, fouled out after scoring 29 points.
The loss could signal an end of an era for the Pistons, who lost in Game 6 of the conference finals for the second straight year after being the East’s top-seeded team.
“It’s disappointing,” Billups said. “I feel bad for the guys on the team to have it end like this again after a great year.”
As the final seconds ticked away, James flung the ball into the crowd and jumped into the arms of center Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the Q quaked. The moment was particularly sweet for Ilgauskas, the club’s 7-foot-3 center who was drafted by the franchise in 1996 and spent two seasons on the sideline with major foot injuries.
“We said we loved each other,” Ilgauskas said. “We’ve gone through so much as a team. For some reason we sought each other out and the emotions took over.”
With wine-and-gold confetti falling from the rafters, James walked to midcourt for the trophy presentation and thanked Cleveland fans, some of whom were wiping away tears at finally seeing a hometown team win something significant.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to me, man,” James said, addressing the 20,562 delirious fans. “But look here, look here. It doesn’t stop.”
Moments later, James was handed the Eastern Conference trophy by Hall of Famer Bill Russell, who had advice for the 22-year-old.
“You are representing the Eastern Conference,” the Boston Celtics great said. “Make me proud.”
Gibson, the hero of Game 4 when he scored a season-high 21, drained a pair of 3-pointers in the first 1:14 of the fourth quarter, giving the Cavs a 73-67 lead and forcing the Pistons to call time.
“Boobie is a guy with a lot of poise and a lot of heart,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said of Gibson during the trophy presentation. “He’s a scorer and a shooter. You leave him alone you better watch out, because it’s Boobie for 3.”
It’s been 43 years since a Cleveland team captured a major pro sports title. The Browns lost three straight AFC titles to John Elway and the Denver Broncos, and the Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948.
The Cavaliers, who joined the league in 1970, now have a shot to end a drought that has spanned generations for Cleveland fans.
“Something had to go right for Cleveland sports,” James said.
A lengthy delay at the start of the second quarter because of a scoreboard malfunction drained most of the energy from the frenzied crowd and prevented the Cavaliers from adding to their six-point lead.
Annoyed by the delay, James scored nine points—all free throws—in the first half. Officially, he tried just two shots from the field in the first 24 minutes but was fouled on several drives to the basket and got to the line 11 times.
Just as he did before Game 3, James arrived at the arena more than 3 1/2 hours before tipoff to get in some extra shooting practice. Wearing one of his popular “Witness” T-shirts, he worked on 3-pointers, free throws and his post-up moves, backing down imaginary Pistons for easy inside baskets.
Powerless to stop him in Game 5 on their home court, the Pistons were determined not to allow James to score as he did. They were as loose as always in the locker room before the game, as Wallace blasted some Snoop Doog from a portable stereo and several of his teammates bobbed to the beat.
Following the morning shootaround, Billups declared that Detroit’s defense would not allow James an encore of his 48-point masterpiece.
“No, that won’t happen again,” Billups warned. “I won’t say the kid can’t get 40, you know what I’m saying? But he won’t get the 40 like that again. No, no, trust me. Not like that. If he can get 40 with fadeaways and all that, then tip your hat. He won’t get that kind of 40 again.”
He didn’t have to, as Gibson and his less-heralded teammates stepped up and made sure their wouldn’t have to go back to Auburn Hills, Mich., where they lost Game 7 in the conference semifinals last year.
“We said we were going to make somebody else beat us, and the kid (Gibson) scored 30,” Billups said.
After scoring 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 in Game 5, James came out looking to get his teammates involved. He took only one shot in the first quarter but finished with five rebounds and five assists as the Cavaliers took a 27-21 lead into the second.
Because the scoreboard, 24-second shot clock and game clock were not operating in the second quarter, Cavaliers public-address announcer Olivier Sedra counted down in five-second intervals from 10 during each possession so the teams knew how much time they had left to shoot.
R&B star Usher, one of the Cavs’ minority owners, sang the national anthem. … The win was Brown’s 19th in the playoffs, moving him past Lenny Wilkens for the most in team history. … It was Cleveland’s first game in June. The latest date the Cavaliers had ever played before was May 29, 1992, a 99-94 loss in the conference finals to the Chicago Bulls.