- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

CLEVELAND.

LeBron James answered his critics in convincing fashion last night.

James finished with 32 points, nine rebounds and nine assists as the Cavaliers defeated the Pistons 88-82 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

James made a number of telling plays in the waning minutes of the game, including a step-back 3-pointer that pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 84-76 with 2:33 left.

He also hit a 14-foot jumper with 16.3 seconds that extinguished the hopes of the Pistons.

His highlight moment came after he missed a 3-pointer that was rebounded by Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Ilgauskas then passed the ball to James, who powered his way to the basket and stuffed the ball over Rasheed Wallace with 7:22 left.

James had been unable to produce these kind of moments in the first two games of the series. It was as if he thought he could be a ball distributor and all would be right in the Cavaliers’ world.

Perhaps he is finally discovering that sometimes the game is no more complex than the best player on the floor saying, “Give me the darn ball and get out of my way.”

“For us to win, I have to be aggressive,” James said. “That means I can’t hold the ball as long and let them have time to get in their defense. That means I have to attack in transition.”

James, in calling it “the biggest game of his career,” showed up three hours before the tipoff to practice his shooting.

“It was all-or-nothing deal at this point,” James said. “You either win and make it a series, or you lose and face the impossible.”

Asked whether he felt a sense of vindication after the criticism, James said, “No. All I’m excited about is we got a victory. I’m just trying to be the best player I can be for my teammates. I think you learn from your mistakes. You learn from your losses.”

James undoubtedly is still learning how to control a game, still learning when to inject himself into a game at this point in the postseason, still learning how to wrest control of a game.

James sometimes defers to his teammates when he should be imposing his will on the proceedings. He sometimes forces plays because of his shaky perimeter shot.

James is not a shooter. He is a scorer who is at his best around the basket. Deny him this area or limit his forays to the basket and he becomes a far less dominating player.

The Pistons had success in the first two games of the series because of their capacity to keep James out of the three-second lane as much as possible.

This made for an indecisive James. It also made for the James who passed the ball to Donyell Marshall with the outcome of Game 1 hanging in the balance.

That James was not in evidence in Game 3.

Cavaliers coach Mike Brown noticed a different James.

“The guy who was big for us was our guy,” Brown said. “He was aggressive, and he hit shots for us down the stretch. He was huge for us. Wow. That’s all I can say.”

Brown made note of James’ early arrival to the arena.

“He is not afraid to take responsibility,” Brown said. “He knows we go as far as he takes us. He set the tone from the start. It was terrific. He attacked the basket, and he made the referees make the calls.”

From Brown’s vantage point, it was pretty simple.

As Brown said, “LeBron stepped up, put us on his shoulders and said, ‘Come along for the ride, fellows.’ ”

And that is what the Cavaliers did.

And they survived because of James.

The Cavaliers now have the prospect of tying the series in Game 4 tomorrow night.

They now have a measure of hope.

And James seems to accept that the burden is on him.

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