CLEVELAND (AP)—Flanked by security personnel, one of his own bodyguards and several close friends, LeBron James was escorted from the arena.
He was untouchable.
He could have used the protection earlier.
Bumped and banged by the Wizards on every drive, James scored 32 points, making two tough shots in traffic down the stretch as the Cleveland Cavaliers opened the NBA playoffs with an intense 93-86 win over Washington on Saturday.
Determined to shut up trash-talking Washington guard DeShawn Stevenson, who had called him “overrated” last month, James took a physical pounding. But he led the Cavaliers to their seventh straight postseason win over the Wizards, who had their chances in the fourth but missed 10 straight shots and scored just two points in the final 4:39.
Afterward, James felt no need to rub it in Stevenson’s face.
“93-86,” he said, “is the only words I need to say.”
James scored 20 points—most of them on layups—in the second half to lead the defending Eastern Conference champions, who took a 1-0 lead in a best-of-seven series that got off to a physical start and appears to have a long way to go.
Game 2, or Round 2, if you will, is Monday night.
“It’s one game,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “They drew first blood.”
Resting a bothersome back, James sat out the early part of the fourth quarter. But once he returned to the floor, Cleveland’s superstar forward came through as usual. With the game on the line, he twice got to the basket and scored over Wizards defenders, who had spent much of the game knocking him to the floor.
James expected a physical game, and he got one. Not that he minded.
“I was built for this,” he said. “I’m not 6-9, 260 pounds to shoot jumpers all night. I go to the hole and I create contact. Don’t ever think I’m the only person feeling that.”
With the score tied 84-84, James knifed his way down the lane and hit a layup between Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood with 1:37 remaining. Following a miss by Gilbert Arenas, who led the Wizards with 24 points, James powered past Stevenson and dropped a floater with 55 seconds left in the game—and one tick to spare on the 24-second shot clock.
The Wizards were still within four, but although Daniel Gibson missed a free throw and James misfired on two attempts from the line in the final minute, Washington’s offense went cold at the worst time possible. Jamison missed three straight outside shots, two of them 3-pointers, in the final minutes.
“They were shots I normally make, but I wasn’t able to convert,” Jamison said. “It’s frustrating.”
Delonte West made four free throws in the final 15.1 seconds to seal Cleveland’s win.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 22 points and 11 rebounds and West finished with 16 points for the Cavaliers, who, unlike the Wizards, stayed quiet in the weeks leading up to the series. Ilgauskas and West both went 8-for-8 from the line and Cavs (37) shot 20 more free throws than the Wizards (17).
Arenas played 27 minutes and fouled out with 13 seconds to go. Still getting his legs after missing 66 games following knee surgery, Agent Zero tired in the fourth. Jamison had 23 points and 19 rebounds and Stevenson finished with three points on just 1-of-9 shooting.
Stevenson doesn’t regret saying what he did about James. But their dialogue has ended.
“The talking is over,” Stevenson said. “I didn’t say anything to him and he didn’t say anything to me. The series has already started. We don’t need to talk. We all know what’s in the air. I said what I had to say. He (James) is a good player. I do what I can to get under his skin, on and off the court.”
Meeting for the third straight time in the postseason, these two teams know each other well. They also strongly dislike each other and tempers boiled over in the final seconds of the first half, when Haywood flattened James with a screen near midcourt.
James didn’t appreciate the foul or that Haywood towered over him for several seconds after the call.
“He was standing over me in a very disrespectful manner,” James said.
He squirmed through Haywood’s legs to get up and the pair pushed and screamed at each other. Cavs coach Mike Brown quickly intervened and Jamison came running in to the fray as Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace led Cleveland’s charge.
Haywood was slapped with a technical, as were Jamison and James.
“I was over top of him and he got a little razzle-dazzled,” Haywood said. “That’s how things go. He ain’t going to do anything. I’m not going to do anything, so let’s play on.”
Jordan said part of Washington’s game plan was to be “very physical” in the paint. And each time, James came inside, the Wizards let him feel it.
“When LeBron drives, he’s getting hit, hit, hit,” Brown said, pounding his hand onto the dais to emphasize his point. “Yes, he had 14 free throws, but if you go back and watch the tape, he’s getting clobbered. He has to make sure that he goes in there and protects himself so he doesn’t get hurt.
“One thing he can’t do, is stop driving the ball.”
James never did, and if there were any questions about the wellness of his back, he answered them with a one-handed dunk off an alley-oop pass from Gibson in the second quarter. Streaking down the left side, James went up to grab Gibson’s lob with his right hand and slammed it in.
“I told Boobie, ‘Just throw the ball anywhere, and I’ll go get it,”’ James said. “He really took that literally.”
Cavs C Ben Wallace, who normally wears his hair in tight corn rows, let his afro out for Game 1. “I’m a big supporter of the ‘fro coming back for the playoffs,” James said. “I told him I need to see it and I told him my kids needed to see it. He couldn’t say no to my kids.” … Cleveland is only 7-17 in series openers. … Jamison had 10 rebounds in the first quarter. … Washington has lost eight consecutive Game 1s.