CLEVELAND (AP)—There was a dramatic shot, a questionable call—or two—in the closing seconds and a frenzied crowd.
On an unseasonably warm night in March, it sure felt like June.
The NBA playoffs don’t start for another month. Tell that to the Magic and Cavaliers.
LeBron James finished with 43 points, including a long 3-pointer with 47.4 seconds left and two clutch free throws with 8.7 seconds to go, as Cleveland avoided just its second loss at home with a 97-93 win over Orlando on Tuesday night.
With Cleveland trailing 93-92 in a game soaked in postseason intensity, James, wearing green and white Nikes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, pulled up in front of Orlando’s bench and coldly knocked down his 3. It may have said “Irish” on the back of his shoes—his high school’s nickname—but there was no luck involved.
“That was just being confident. Being down one and taking a 3, a lot of people wouldn’t have done that,” James said. “I’m one of the guys who would do that. I knocked it down.”
On Orlando’s next possession, Magic center Dwight Howard was called for a 3-second violation by referee Jack Nies, giving the ball back to Cleveland.
A steamed Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy couldn’t fathom a whistle at that point.
“You won’t see that call again. That, I guarantee you,” Van Gundy said. “You will not see, with the game on the line, a 3-second call in the last 10 seconds. That’s part of the reason they’re 30-1 at home. They’re a very good team, and when you get calls like that (expletive), you’re in pretty good shape.”
Howard, too, felt the Cavs got a break.
“I was very surprised,” he said. “I was in the lane and I got out. It seemed like their bench or their coaching staff got into the ref’s ear about me being in the lane. Instead of letting the refs make the call, I guess the bench made the call.”
James was then fouled while shooting by rookie Courtney Lee—another iffy call—and made his two free throws as the crowd chanted “MVP” toward the superstar, who scored 21 of Cleveland’s last 31.
Rashard Lewis missed a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left for the Magic, who came in with the Eastern Conference’s best road record, but couldn’t stop the Cavs from getting to 30-1 at home.
James, who scored 15 in the fourth, added 12 rebounds, eight assists and four steals. Mo Williams added 21 points for Cleveland, which held the Magic to 18 points in the fourth quarter and won its sixth straight. The Cavs are a league-best 14-2 since the All-Star break.
Howard had 13 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks for the Magic. But Orlando’s big man attempted just eight shots, none in the fourth quarter as the Magic chose to attack from outside.
“I kick myself on a couple of play calls,” Van Gundy said. “They were coming every time he (Howard) had the ball, but we still probably should have gone to him a little bit more throughout the game, not just at the end.”
Orlando took its last lead when Courtney Lee drove for a layup with 1:24 remaining. On Cleveland’s next possession, Delonte West missed a 3-pointer, but Cavs forward Anderson Varejao got the rebound, giving the Cavs another chance.
James made the most of it.
Dribbling a few feet from Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, James surveyed his options before shooting his big 3-pointer—a shot that sent the Quicken Loans Crowd into a frenzy. After Howard was called for 3 seconds, James faked Lee into the air and drew a questionable foul on Lee, who worked as a counselor at James’ camp two summers ago.
“He didn’t jump as much as I thought he would,” James said. “But definitely took up my space and that’s what got me the call.”
James then stepped to the line, where he has had problems in the past, and made both attempts.
The Magic had won three straight in Cleveland and had beaten the Cavs in seven of their past nine meetings. Orlando also came in with road wins over Boston, the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio, Portland, Dallas and Utah.
“Maybe we’ll see them again, deep in the playoffs,” James said.
Orlando took a 75-66 late in the third period, but James, sensing his team was in deep trouble, made two jumpers and then ended the quarter by rushing down the floor for a layup at the horn to pull Cleveland within 75-72.
It was just the fifth time this season the Cavs trailed going into the fourth quarter.
The Cavs have 54 wins, three shy of the club record. … Cavs F Wally Szczerbiak sprained his left knee in the third period and did not return. … James may skip filling out an NCAA tournament sheet this year. “I think I’m just going to watch the games and be a fan. Filling out those brackets is very, very hard. This year it’s open to anybody.” He does have a favorite team, though. “Akron U. But it’s going to be tough for those guys.” James is sure if he had attended his hometown school—where high school teammates Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce went—the Zips could have competed for a national title. “We would have beaten up on the MAC,” he said. … Cavs coach Mike Brown, who has been ejected twice this season and has six technicals, has promised not to get another one this season. “I want our guys to understand, we control our own destiny,” he said. “We don’t want to get to the point where we’re blaming officials. I’ve blamed the officials enough.”