Once again, No. 23 reigns in Cleveland

CLEVELAND – It was happening again. God, it was happening again here. Another championship season had come crashing down on Cleveland, cruel and criminal. The Cavaliers had unraveled and now there were some fans – speechless and ashen – marching up the stairs and disappearing to the exits. They weren’t thinking about the possibility of LeBron James(notes) getting one final shot for redemption, but Michael Jordan and John Elway and every damn dagger ever delivered to this city’s swollen sporting heart.

One second left, and a Cleveland sports season had come to die in Quicken Loans Arena. Shakespeare should’ve been a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. No city does sports tragedy like this one.

Yes, somehow it was happening again to Cleveland.

“A second,” LeBron James countered, “is a long time for me.”

The Cavaliers’ Mo Williams(notes) had the job of passing the ball inbounds with the Magic still bursting over a 23-point comeback on Friday night, over a tough, twisting Hedo Turkoglu(notes) basket with one second left in Game 2. The loudest arena in the league had lost its voice, its breath, its bearings. It felt like it had lost this season. The Cleveland fan has been conditioned to believe something precious is destined to perish.

Yes, it was happening again, and suddenly the ball reached the hands of LeBron James and the course of NBA playoff history was transformed. He turned, shot over Turkoglu and a rapidly closing Rashard Lewis(notes). The shot lofted long and high and true across 24 feet, across the years of Cavs angst and anguish.

When everyone expected the sky to fall in Cleveland, something else dropped down: Sweet salvation.

“It was like watching a movie,” Orlando’s Dwight Howard(notes) said. “The ball was just spinning. … It was like watching a real movie. … ”

“He hit the shot.”

He hit the shot?

LeBron James hit the shot.

Cleveland beat the Orlando Magic, 96-95, on James’ 3-pointer at the buzzer, and salvaged itself a 1-1 series tie in the Eastern Conference finals. Truth be told, they salvaged the season, too. The Cavs should’ve lost on Friday night, and they know it. They’re struggling with everything about these Magic, and LeBron will have to do more and more to keep the Cavs alive with the mismatches destroying them everywhere on the floor. They should’ve been on the way to Orlando with the once-unthinkable possibility of a Magic sweep looming like an anvil over this series.

So, yes, they stormed the court and tackled James, and you’ve never, ever heard such a spontaneous, primal scream of 20,000 people in an arena. Never, ever seen such a reaction, such joy and relief and sheer ecstacy. The arena shook, strangers hugged strangers, and yes, the Cavaliers rushed James like high school kids who won a sectional title.

Williams, the passer, collapsed to his knees and pounded the floor over and over and over. He hit it 10 times, maybe 11. He looked like he wanted to cry.

This was one of the greatest shots in NBA history, because of the circumstances and stakes and degree of difficulty. Twenty years ago, it was Jordan over Craig Ehlo to beat the Cavs in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

This time, it was James over Turkoglu. This time, it was James over long odds and the longer reach of NBA history.

“He was born to do that,” Cleveland’s Sasha Pavlovic(notes) marveled.

He was born to do that here.

Across the fourth quarter, on the way to his 35 points, James had deferred to his teammates to take important shots. No more now. As the Cavs went into the timeout after Turkoglu’s shot, James made it clear: This was his shot, his story to finish. No decoys. This wasn’t time to be Magic, but Michael. Witness this

“Whatever happens,” James yelled to Williams in the huddle, “I’m going to come get the ball.” Whatever options fall apart, James insisted to his point guard that he would find a way to get open and promised him, “I’m going to knock down the shot.”

Turkoglu had made an immense shot over Pavlovic to take a 95-93 lead, but he made one grave mistake:

He left a second on the clock.

He left LeBron life.

Lewis, 6-foot-10, covered Williams on the inbounds pass. He’s long and angular and able to make it difficult for the Cavaliers point guard to get a clear-sighted passing lane. As Williams walked past midcourt, where an official waited to hand him the ball, he kept saying to himself, “Please God … please God … something … something.”

After that, Williams told the official: Please give me the five-second count out loud. Cleveland was out of timeouts. Williams had one chance to get the ball to James, where he could catch, turn and shoot. One second, one chance.

Cleveland coach Mike Brown had diagrammed a lob pass for James. He would fake back to the ball and turn hard toward the rim. “When I went to go for the lob, Hedo didn’t bite on it,” James said.

The ref’s count was climbing, “Two … Three … ”

Lewis had his back to the floor, his eyes burned into those of Williams. Everything told him the Magic had this inbounds play defended perfectly, that they had James bottled in the cluster of bodies behind him. “I could see [Williams] face scrunching up,” Lewis said. “He didn’t know who to throw the ball to. He double-pumped two, three times … ”

Finally, James stayed true to his word. He sprinted back beyond the 3-point line, and the referee’s count had reached four – one more second, and it would’ve been a violation – and Williams fired a perfect pass some 15 feet to James.

“Rashard played it perfect,” James said. “He stood tall and got in Mo’s way.”

Lewis turned over his shoulder, saw James catching the ball 25 feet out and used those long, loping strides to make a final, desperate run to contest the shot. Turkoglu was there, rising with LeBron.

“LeBron just jumps so high on his shot, you can’t get to the ball,” Lewis said. “The ball felt like it took forever to come down.”

Once Mo Williams let go of the pass, once he watched James catch and shoot, all he could think was: When will that ball ever come down? Once it dropped through the net, and a blurring, bum rush of Cavs toppled James, Williams’ knees buckled and he collapsed to the floor.

“I was punch drunk,” he said. “I just fell down. I just … fell … down.”

It was a shot, James says, he had made thousands and thousands of times 30 miles down the road in Akron. He was always Jordan, always No. 23. “That’s a shot that you will see for a long time,” James said. “You watch classic games and you see Jordan hit game-winners, and you go back and see Jerry West hitting game-winners and Magic Johnson going across the lane and hitting the hook against Boston.”

Mostly, LeBron James was thinking about Michael Jordan on Friday night. He’s the ghost who always haunted these Cavs, and the inspiration that drove James to basketball genius. He isn’t chasing Kobe Bryant(notes) as much as he’s chasing Michael. What Elway always did to the Browns, Jordan always did to the Cavs.

Past midnight, past one of the great finishes in NBA history, James told everyone: “That guy is not in the league anymore. The other ‘23’ is gone, so we don’t have to worry about that no more.”

“ … Twenty-three is on the good side now.”

James hadn’t had one of these shots in the playoffs, and he understood that history demands you deliver these bigger-than-life moments. Yes, he made this shot thousands of times growing up in Akron, in the shadow of a city going on 45 years without a professional championship. “The Shot” still belongs to No. 23 in Cleveland – just no longer Michael Jordan.

Yes, it was happening again here. But as it turned out, this wasn’t one more Cleveland sporting collapse. Twenty years later, it was “The Shot” reborn on the Cavs’ side, on Jordan’s anniversary.

“We are playing with history in the making,” Wally Szczerbiak(notes) said. “He’s going to be the best basketball player to ever touch a ball.”

Nearby, Mo Williams still wore his uniform, still a face flushed in delirium.

“What just happened out there?” he asked.

Outside his locker, his knees on ice, LeBron James looked up and offered a knowing nod and smile.

“Just say thank you to the basketball gods,” he said.

The basketball god, LeBron James means.

Once more, he wears No. 23.