WASHINGTON (AP)—King James lost his crown.
All right, so it was his burgundy headband that went flying when LeBron James took a shot to the noggin from DeShawn Stevenson, their simmering feud nearly boiling over. James kept his cool, allowing the flagrant foul to spark him and his Cleveland Cavaliers.
At game’s end, James was just as collected, drawing waves of Washington Wizards defenders before dishing to Delonte West for a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 5.4 seconds left. That shot, along with James’ 34 points and 12 rebounds, led the Cavaliers to a 100-97 victory on Sunday and a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series.
“There’s been some extracurricular activities going on outside and inside this series,” James said, “but I’ve been able to stay focused.”
The Wizards were ahead by a point with 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half when James drove to the basket, and Stevenson came from behind and swiped a hand out, clipping the Cavs’ star with what James said teammates told him was a closed fist before tumbling to the court. James kept his balance and stepped toward Stevenson, who got up and stepped toward James.
They exchanged words, but that was it, before teammates stepped in between.
“If we was on the park, something definitely would have escalated,” James said. “But, you know, I guess that’s what they want to do. They want to hurt LeBron James this series. It ain’t working.”
“That’s how it goes,” he said. “It was a big game for us.”
Now the Cavaliers, who eliminated the Wizards in each of the previous two postseasons, have control, with Game 5 on Wednesday at Cleveland.
James got help Sunday from more than just West, whose career playoff-high 21 points included five 3-pointers. Daniel Gibson made four 3s, and Ben Wallace had 12 rebounds—part of a remarkable 51-31 edge on the boards for Cleveland.
One small sequence that epitomized things: At the end of the third quarter, Joe Smith’s three-point play followed two offensive rebounds and gave the Cavaliers an 80-73 edge.
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan was succinct: “We didn’t rebound.”
LeBron vs. DeShawn had been mainly an off-court rivalry, prompted in part by Stevenson calling James overrated, and extending to involve rap megastar Jay-Z and one-hit wonder Soulja Boy. James’ pal Jay-Z created a song dissing Stevenson that was played at a D.C. club this weekend.
“He’s worth $500 million, and he’s writing songs about me,” Stevenson said before tipoff. “What does that say about DeShawn Stevenson? Ballin’!”
But besides getting outscored by 21 points by James, Stevenson appeared to give him some motivation.
“Was it a flagrant foul? I really don’t know,” said Wizards center Brendan Haywood, ejected from Game 2 after shoving James. “All I know is we weren’t trying to give up a layup.”
James went 1-for-2 at the line after the foul, then made a 3 on the ensuing possession, all part of a 13-0 Cavaliers spurt.
“That,” Gilbert Arenas said, “got him mad.”
And yet, thanks to a suddenly effective Arenas, Washington had a chance to win what turned out to be a gem of a game, a nice change after Cleveland’s 30-point victory in Game 2, and Washington’s 36-point margin in Game 3.
Arenas made two free throws with 57 seconds left to get Washington within two points. After James missed a jumper—part of an 0-for-3 fourth quarter— Arenas’ 8-foot fadeaway with 28 seconds remaining made it 97-all.
And from there, as West put it: “I’m pretty sure everybody in the gym, including their defense, thought (James) was going to take the last shot. And I think sometimes we forget this guy has great court vision. He made the right play.”
Which was dishing to an open West, who went to high school in nearby Maryland.
It was strikingly similar to what happened in the first-round series between these teams in 2006. That time, the Cavaliers eliminated the Wizards in Game 6 when James found Damon Jones open for a go-ahead baseline jumper in the closing seconds of overtime.
“Washington definitely probably had a flashback,” James said.
Even after West came through, Arenas had enough time to try to tie it again.
But a player who built a reputation for clutch late-game performances before having two operations on his left knee hesitated before badly missing a 3 over West.
Arenas was so “distracted” and “flustered” by the way things ended, he forgot about his postgame ritual of throwing his jersey into the stands to give a fan a souvenir.
Whatever emotional lift he might have given his teammates, whatever excitement his mere presence might have given the crowd, Arenas was not exactly helpful at the outset. When he sat with 3 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter, his line gave whole new meaning to his nickname “Agent Zero”: zero points, zero field-goal attempts, zero foul shots, one assist, one foul, and four of Washington’s five turnovers.
Arenas’ first points didn’t come until a reverse layup in the third quarter, and he finished with 10 in a series-high 32 minutes.
“This is not my team,” Arenas said. “This is Antawn’s and Caron’s team.”
Above Stevenson’s locker, there was a sheet of blue construction paper Jordan gave his players before the series began. Drawn by a member of team’s basketball operations department at Jordan’s behest, it’s labeled “Wizards Climb” and includes drawings and phrases meant to inspire. There are stick-figure men swimming to “.500” shore, others are climbing a rock labeled “Cleveland.” There are boxes around words such as “Disciplined Aggression” and “Will and Determination.”