CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—LeBron James consistently hit jumpers. He looked good on drives to the basket and wowed the crowd with a couple of dunks.
Too bad for the Cleveland Cavaliers that was before the game. When James shed his basketball gear for street clothes just before tipoff, he could only watch helplessly Saturday night as the reigning Eastern Conference champions extended their slide.
Gerald Wallace scored 22 points and Raymond Felton went 8-for-8 from the foul line in the final 16 seconds as the Charlotte Bobcats snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 96-93 win over the slumping Cavaliers.
As James missed his fifth straight game with a sprained left index finger, the Cavaliers couldn’t hold onto a three-point lead early in the fourth quarter, then missed several chances down the stretch in their sixth straight loss.
James told reporters Friday, “Teams better get their wins now.” They are, even the Bobcats, who had the NBA’s longest losing streak.
“We have the pieces here to turn things around,” said Larry Hughes, who scored 22 points in his first game in a month after being sidelined with a bone bruise in his left leg. “We’re not in the basement. We feel like there’s a good chance we’ll be on the top of the East when it’s all done.”
On Saturday it was the Bobcats, for a change, who made the big plays—and foul shots down the stretch.
The league’s second-worst free-throw shooting team went 14-for-14 in the final minute, tasting victory for the first time since Nov. 19.
Felton’s two free throws with 3.1 seconds left put Charlotte up 3. Without any timeouts left, Cleveland was forced to inbound from the backcourt and Hughes’ halfcourt shot at the buzzer was well short.
“I knew I could hit every single one of them,” said Felton, who scored 15 points and hit 11 of 14 from the line. “I was trying to get the ball. I kept getting fouled and I kept going to the free throw line. I’m glad we got that money off our back.”
“The way we won and the things that we did good at the end gave us a lot of confidence,” Wallace said. “We’ve been struggling all season with our free throws, and we were able to hit our free throws when it counted.”
“We have to clean that up and not be careless with the basketball,” coach Mike Brown said.
After Charlotte built an eight-point lead in the third quarter, Hughes scored eight points in a 19-8 quarter-bridging run that gave Cleveland a 75-72 lead with 8 minutes left.
Matt Carroll’s two free throws and jumper with 2:43 left put Charlotte ahead 82-79.
The Bobcats wouldn’t relinquish the lead, but the Cavaliers stayed in it late on Brown’s three-point play and Gibson’s 3-pointer. But the two also combined to miss three free throws in the final minute.
Drew Gooden tipped in a missed free throw to make it 94-93. But Felton answered with two free throws before Hughes’ desperation shot failed to hit iron as an animated James watched from the bench.
It was a positive ending to a rough week for the Bobcats, who entered with the league’s longest losing streak. Coach Sam Vincent put his team through two difficult days of practice that included a heated exchange between Vincent and Okafor at the end of Friday’s workout.
Vincent was upset that Charlotte wasn’t getting the ball to Okafor. They changed that in the first half, with Okafor scoring 13 points as the Bobcats built a 49-42 lead.
The Cavaliers rallied to tie it at halftime on Brown’s soaring one-handed dunk that brought James out of his seat and about six steps onto the court.
The teams met three days after the Cavaliers matched Charlotte’s offer sheet for restricted free agent Anderson Varejao. Still working his way back into shape and sorting out visa issues, Varejao did not make the trip.
Apparently, Varejao has a ways to go to be in top condition. Varejao played a pickup game with assistant coaches on Friday, the day he reported to the team. “My coaches said that he looked pretty the first couple of games, but by the third game he was gassed,” said Brown, who was noncommittal if Varejao would play Tuesday against Indiana. … Bobcats C Ryan Hollins had 4 points in 9 minutes in his return after missing five games with a shoulder injury.