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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Time and time again came LeBron, no other option, no other chance for the Cleveland Cavaliers. One on five every time. One LeBron, five Piston defenders and Detroit barely had a prayer.
In a performance for the ages, the 22-year-old star answered the age-old question of whether one man can beat an entire team.
LeBron 109, Detroit 107.
In Game 5, in a game of five, one won.
Here in the East finals, LeBron James scored his team's last 25 points, 29 of its final 30 and 48 overall (to go with nine rebounds and seven assists) in one of the most astounding, astonishing efforts in NBA history.
With 2:48 remaining in regulation and Cleveland trailing 88-84, James took the ball, took his team on his back and never let up, scoring every Cavaliers point down the fourth-quarter stretch and through two overtime periods until at long last the Detroit Pistons were felled.
Post game, ice bags on his knees, a towel draped over his shoulders, head spinning as the adrenaline wore off, even he didn't really know what to say. He was exhausted and exhilarated and just coming to terms with the historic performance.
He had been raked over the coals earlier in this series for being too much of a team player, passing up a game-winner one night, not shooting enough the next.
So while he defaulted into good guy talk about "giving all the credit to my teammates" and mentioning "the simple fact we won," everyone knows Cleveland is a single victory from a stunning advancement to the NBA finals because James gave up on every team mantra known to man.
Down the stretch, he cast aside any aspirations of being called a ball hog and proceeded to humble and humiliate a Pistons team that not only had no answers but also barely knew the question.
For every ridiculous fallback jumper that he stuck, for every impossible leaner, there was an assortment of blow-by drives, dunks and, in the case of the final game-winning shot, layups. Detroit, so often, got stuck flat-footed in single coverage, which was easy prey for the insane speed and strength of James.
It didn't matter who the Pistons tried on him. He manhandled Chauncey Billups, powered through Tayshaun Prince, ran by Richard Hamilton and broke Jason Maxiell's ankles. He left the entire Detroit roster pointing at each other, arguing with each other, wondering just how the hell one guy was in the process of scoring 25 in a row on them.
"We're going to have to do something different next time," Flip Saunders, the completely overmatched Pistons coach, concluded.
There were no tricks here, no gimmicks. This was simple line-it-up-and-go. Mostly it was LeBron at the top of the key with the ball and the floor spread. Strength against strength, man against team and LeBron just ruined Detroit.
The rest of the Cavs stood around in the unlikely case LeBron might get trapped and need to pass. Then they would generally pass it right back. The last non-LeBron basket was hit with 7:21 to play in the fourth.
At one point, Cleveland coach Mike Brown, realizing James was taking all the shots, asked his star if he might want the Cavaliers to call a play for someone else. James scoffed at the notion; not now, not here, not with this series – and this season – on the line.
"I said, 'OK, let's go right back to LeBron and spread the floor,' " Brown laughed.
And that was that. That was all.
James' teammates knew this was special, just not how special until the stats started getting read after. Although not even the Elias Sports Bureau could crunch the numbers (this was a stat no one had ever heard of), the NBA believed that no one – not Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, no one – had ever done this.
Twenty-five in a row to win the game? Twenty-nine of the final 30? No one knew what to say.
"I feel bad because my words don't give it justice to what he did," said Brown.
"One time in the seventh grade I scored 29 points and that was all the points my team scored," laughed Drew Gooden. "We won 29-27."
That was good as anyone had. The seventh grade.
"I've never seen anybody dominate a game like that, especially considering the situation, Eastern Conference finals, on the road, against a very good defensive team," Zydrunas Ilgauskas said.
Why does Kobe Bryant think he needs a supporting cast again?
Meanwhile, James kept talking about his teammates until he eventually realized that as true as it was – fine, he didn't play five-on-one defense – it was absurd. His teammates are moderately talented, a lottery team without him. With him, they are 48 minutes away on Saturday from taking on the Spurs, who had to watch this on television and at least feel pangs of fear as he dissected Detroit.
Forget all the armchair criticism he took early in this series, forget all the critics. Was it his fault they missed wide-open, game-winning shots? This was the truth, this was the future, this was LeBron James dramatically rewriting the story of these playoffs.
And so he ditched the aw-shucks act for a second and finally admitted that, at the very least, "I was able to will my team to victory."
One on five, and the one willed the win. Through the last minutes of regulation and all of two playoff overtimes, in the loneliest of basketball moments on the road amid the roar of the crowd against veteran defenders, and with the series about to swing, LeBron James willed all right – willed it like maybe no one else ever has.
Shot after shot, time after time.