With his Cleveland Cavaliers down to the Washington Wizards by a basket with 2.3 seconds left, LeBron James strolled back onto the court after a timeout and took a second to jaw with his old friends on the home bench.
"He said he was gonna take a 3," recalled Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson, who despite being injured and in street clothes had maintained a steady stream of trash talk with James all game long. "He said, 'I'm gonna take a 3.'"
James, who has tormented the Wizards the past three postseasons, did in fact take three.
Three steps - and what appeared to be one or two more. Instead of lifting his team to victory, James ended up trudging off in disappointment after an 80-77 Wizards victory Sunday at Verizon Center.
It was a welcome change for the Wizards, who in 2005 saw their season end on a similar play that resulted in a layup by James. And then on Christmas, the Wizards were in Cleveland and led by seven with a little more than a minute left before a pair of Wizards gaffes and a trio of questionable calls benefited the Cavaliers, who went on to win 93-89.
But this time was different. After telling the Wizards of his plans, James, who had scored 30 points, got the inbounds pass at the top of the key, dribbled while staring down Caron Butler and then drove past his fellow All-Star toward the basket. But he never got there because official Bill Spooner blew his whistle and signaled James had taken a few too many steps as he cut through the lane.
It was hard to tell which side was more shocked.
"I definitely knew [he] had traveled, but I didn't think they would call it," Butler said with a laugh. "[Three] years ago, looking in hindsight, it was the same thing that happened in the playoffs. We get that call, and who knows what would've happened. Everybody was healthy. But [Sunday] it was one of those situations where a great player made a move, good officiating, they [made] the call and I was just like, 'Aw, man, there is a God.'"
The Wizards got the ball, Butler was fouled and he made one of two shots. After a missed 3-pointer from James, the Wizards (7-25) breathed a celebratory sigh of relief after winning in front of a sell-out crowd at Verizon Center.
The win came after Washington handled Cleveland (27-6) on the boards - posting a 52-35 advantage - and forced 17 turnovers. The Wizards limited Cleveland to 39.4 percent from the field and topped them in second-chance scoring (20-12) and points in the paint (38-28).
Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Butler scored 19, and Dominic McGuire scored 10 and added 10 rebounds.
The Wizards' largest lead was 70-54 two minutes into the fourth. But with 6:33 left, Cleveland got a spark when coach Mike Brown received two technical fouls and was ejected. Brown had sprinted the length of the court and screamed in the face of referee Zach Zarba over what he believed to be a noncall on James.
The Cavaliers responded, piecing together a 19-7 run that wiped out the Wizards' 16-point lead and tied the score at 77-77 with 1:01 left. The Wizards called a 20-second timeout and turned the ball over for the eighth time in the quarter. But Cleveland failed to capitalize; Delonte West missed a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left.
Jamison broke the Wizards' scoring drought when he caught a pass from Nick Young and knocked down a baseline jumper with 10.5 seconds left to provide the winning basket.
"Of course we were frustrated, especially how they tied it up," Jamison said. "It was the mental part of basketball that we weren't being successful at. That's tough, especially being up 14, 15 points. But we stayed positive, pulled together as a team and [did] not let them break down.
"We waited until the last minute to get it going, but we made the correct plays and played smart as well."