CLEVELAND (AP)—From 24 feet, swish. From 22, bottom of the net. From 21, good. From 20, count it.
And from 15, LeBron James was perfect when he had to be.
James, who just celebrated birthday No. 23—to match his uniform number— began the new year with another dominating performance, one that has almost become routine for Cleveland’s star of stars.
“He got into one of those zones we all love,” Cavaliers guard Daniel Gibson said. “It was fun to watch.”
After taking only five shots and scoring four points in the first half, James dropped in 13 points in the third and then took over in the fourth, scoring 19 of Cleveland’s 22 over the last 6:51 and making 6-of-6 free throws in the last 16 seconds.
“I demanded the ball, went up there and made them,” said James, criticized in the past for suspect free-throw shooting.
Down the stretch, James also got an assist on a 17-foot jumper with 2:33 left by Larry Hughes, who came in shooting just 27 percent in his past five games. Hughes’ jumper usually draws groans from Cavs fans, who have been tough on him all season.
But this one, which put the Cavaliers ahead 85-82, was a welcome sight.
Hughes’ shooting has been so off that one Cavs supporter even started a Web site: HeyLarryHughesPleaseStopTakingSoManyBadShots.com in protest. Hughes, though, quieted his critics for the night by going 6-for-10.
“I felt pretty good,” said Hughes. “I was able to get some open looks and just step in and not worry about anything and just knock it down.”
James wasn’t perfect in the fourth. After his 3-pointer with 5:23 left put the Cavs up 83-79, he missed four consecutive attempts before knocking down three straight jumpers to give Cleveland a 91-86 lead with 37 seconds to go.
Although he briefly lost his touch, James didn’t once think about passing up a shot.
“I’m going to continue to shoot,” he said. “I’ve always got confidence.”
Hughes finished with 14 points and Drew Gooden 13 for Cleveland.
Joe Johnson scored 24 points and Josh Smith 20 for Atlanta, which could do little to stop James when it mattered most. Cleveland’s All-Star forward was feeling it in the fourth, taking and making jumper after jumper as the helpless Hawks looked on.
“He stepped up,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. “That’s what he does. He makes plays. The guy’s incredible.”
The Hawks hung around, though, as Johnson made two straight 3-pointers in the last 11.9 seconds. But each time, Atlanta put James on the line, and he calmly knocked down his attempts—not always a given in years past.
After a lethargic first half—by his standards—James began looking to drive to the basket more often in the third quarter, and worked his way inside for 13 points.
He dropped a 20-foot jumper at the horn to end the period, giving the Cavs a 69-68 lead entering the fourth.
With Atlanta leading 77-76, James decided it was time to do his thing.
He made consecutive baskets and then drained a long 3-pointer to give Cleveland a four-point lead. After the Hawks got to 83-82, James whipped a pass to Hughes, who smoothly made his big shot.
With Gooden making his first six shots, the Cavs built a 37-29 lead in the second quarter before going into one of their usual offensive funks. Atlanta got right back in it, and a 9-0 spurt over the final 3:58 put the Hawks up 38-37 at halftime despite shooting just 32 percent from the floor.
The Hawks have lost four in a row Cleveland and 13 of 16 since 2003-04. … Cavs Paging Dr. LeBron: Sonics rookie Kevin Durant called James to consult with him about a finger injury he sustained that was similar to the one that sidelined Cleveland’s superstar for five games. “I don’t think his was as bad as mine,” James said. … No New Year’s resolutions for James, who turned 23 on Dec. 30. But he does plan to move into his new 35,440-square-foot house sometime in the summer of 2008. “It’s getting there,” said James, who routinely stops by to check on construction. … Atlanta’s 9-4 record in December was the club’s best in the month since 1993-94. … The Cavs assigned F Cedric Simmons to the NBA’s developmental league. Simmons, acquired in an offseason trade from New Orleans, played in just four games and has been slowed by an ankle injury.