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Cavaliers clinch playoff spot; Pacers continue slid

Mar 28, 2007 - 5:20 AM INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) -- LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are headed to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 11 years.

James, who was hampered by foul trouble in the second half, scored 26 points as the Cavaliers defeated the Indiana Pacers, 105-94, to clinch a playoff spot.

"I'm a one-day-at-a-time type of guy," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "I wasn't here back in the day. I just know that we are a playoff team, we expect to be in the playoffs, and we have to make sure that we have the right mind set. We still have time to get better before we go down the stretch and into the playoffs."

Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 22 points as Cleveland had four starters score in double figures. Eric Snow came off the bench and scored nine of his 14 points in the second half as the Cavaliers shot 52 percent for the game (38-of 73) and never trailed after halftime.

"Offensively, we did a good job of taking care of the ball," Brown said. "Down the stretch we did a good job of setting the tempo. I thought Eric Snow was big for us coming off the bench."

The Cavaliers got to the free-throw line often hitting 27-of-35 attempts, James hit 10-14 from the line, as the Cavaliers got easily penetrated the Indiana defense.

"We got to the free-throw line a lot because we drove the ball to the basket and didn't settle for outside jump shots like we had been," Ilgauskas said.

Jermaine O'Neal scored 32 points for Indiana, which has lost four of five and 15 of its last 17 games.

O'Neal is coming off a season-high 39 points in a last-second loss to the Chicago Bulls on Sunday and has scored 30-plus points in consecutive games for the first time since the 2004-05 season.

The Pacers (31-39) fell one game behind the idle New Jersey Nets (32-38) for the last playoff spot. Indiana is 1 1/2 games behind seventh-place Orlando (33-38) and a game in front of the New York Knicks (30-40).

The good news for Indiana is that they can gain ground on the Magic and Nets. They hit the road to play the Nets on Wednesday and the Magic on Friday.

"The good thing is we get another opportunity tomorrow," O'Neal said. "We have to fight it out. We are right there. We are right there. We're not having problems on the offensive side, it's the defense. It will be big to get these two wins."

Danny Granger scored 22 points and Jamaal Tinsley added 15 and 12 assists for the Pacers.

"It's real frustrating," Tinsley said. "You always have another day to prove yourself. We have another opportunity tomorrow.

"In this league you have to win ball games. Competing is good but you have to win ... They outplayed us. Scoring means nothing if you don't defend, you're going to lose."

Cleveland (43-28) moved within 2 1/2 games of the Detroit Pistons (45-28) for the Eastern Conference's best record.

James, who also had seven rebounds and six assists, scored 11 of his 15 first-half points in the second quarter by continually getting to the foul line. James made seven free throws during a 13-2 run that gave the Cavaliers their largest lead at 38-24.

The Cavaliers led at the break 52-45.

Cleveland extended its lead to 69-58 in the third before James picked up his fourth foul and sat out the rest of the quarter. The Pacers outscored the Cavaliers, 14-6, with James on the bench.

The Pacers trailed, 75-72, after three quarters and pulled with one at 79-78 on Granger's dunk with 8:51 remaining, but the Cavaliers went on a 17-9 run that was capped by a three-point play by Snow that stretched the lead to 96-87. Indiana could not recover.

"We couldn't get a pivotal basket or stop or combination of the two," coach Rick Carlisle said. "When you play a very good team like Cleveland and you're struggling to get over the hump, you have to do it."

The Cavaliers, who had lost three of their last four, now have some momentum as they embark on a five-game road trip.

James called a team meeting before the game as the team prepared to play eight of their final 12 games on the road.

"I just wanted to make sure everybody was mentally ready and on the same page as we prepared for this long road trip," James said. "I want us to play great basketball. I want to win every opportunity we have. I can't live with us not playing hard.

"I feel that I have a lot of responsibility to make sure everyone knows where they are at on the court. Tonight I thought our defense did a good job of doubling down on Jermaine and still getting out on their shooters. ... I applaud my teammates, there may be times when I yell at them, but I want them to get them better. ... I just want to win basketball games."

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