- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

CLEVELAND — LeBron James didn’t wait for the last play. He did all he needed to do before the clock got anywhere near zero.

James had 32 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the most important game of his young NBA career, helping Cleveland to an 88-82 victory over the Detroit Pistons last night to pull the Cavaliers within 2-1 in the Eastern Conference finals.

“We ain’t done yet,” James said. “We’ve still got to hold down homecourt and try to make it a three-game series.”

James, rising to the occasion with a hometown crowd hanging on his every move, scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, and rookie Daniel Gibson came up with several key plays down the stretch to help his more celebrated teammate.

In Game 1 at Detroit, James was criticized for not taking the Cavaliers’ final shot. In Game 2, James was swarmed by defenders and couldn’t get off a clean attempt in the foul lane in the waning moments of the Pistons’ second straight 79-76 win.

James left nothing to chance this time, hitting a 3-pointer with 2:34 left and a 16-foot jumper in the last 23 seconds to give Cleveland its first win in the conference finals since May 25, 1992, against Chicago.

“You learn from mistakes, you learn from losses, but this game doesn’t put something on me where it’s, ‘Hey, I’ve finally done it,’ ” James said. “This was a big game. We won it, and we have to move on.”

Zydrunas Ilgauskas scored 16 points, Sasha Pavlovic 13 and Drew Gooden 12 for the Cavaliers, who can even the series with a win in Game 4 tomorrow night.

Rasheed Wallace had 16 points and Chris Webber 15 to pace the Pistons, who were the East’s best road team during the regular season and came in 4-1 so far in these playoffs outside of Auburn Hills, Mich.

Detroit, which needed seven games to put away the Cavaliers in last year’s playoffs, could have effectively ended this series with another road win.

James refused to allow it.

“LeBron stepped up and said, ‘Get on my shoulders,’ ” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. “We all hopped on.”

Cleveland’s superstar made sure he was ready for one of this championship-starved city’s biggest nights of basketball.

James broke from his usual pregame routine, and after arriving three hours before tipoff, he shot 3-pointers and jumpers on the arena’s main floor for the first time this season.

“I’ve got to be ready,” said James, who wore a black sleeveless “Witness” T-shirt during his workout. “This is probably the biggest game of my life and probably one of the biggest games in Cavaliers history. I’ve got recognize that. I have to be prepared to go out there.

“It’s all out.”

He played like it.

With the scored tied 68-68, James made another of those legacy-defining plays. On the left side, he burst through and down the lane to deliver a posterizing dunk on Wallace, who fouled Cleveland’s forward.

“It was sick,” Gibson said. “It really sparked the club when he did it, and he makes those type of plays all the time. It’s incredible to see.”

James missed the free throw but fed Ilgauskas for a layup on the Cavaliers’ next trip to make it 72-68 with 6:22 left. Moments later, he whipped a pass to Gibson, who drained a 3-pointer to make it 77-72.

With Cleveland clinging to a five-point lead, Gibson stole the ball from Tayshaun Prince, and on the Cavaliers’ next possession, James stepped back and swished a 3-pointer to make it 84-76, sending the sellout crowd of 20,562 into a frenzy.

The Pistons wouldn’t go quietly and scored six straight points before James responded again, driving the right side and hitting a tough jumper in traffic. After Prince missed, Drew Gooden hit two free throws to close the scoring.

As the clock expired, James took the ball and handed it to referee Tom Washington, perhaps his most satisfying pass of the night.

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