for this game

James shines as Cavaliers even series with Pistons

May 28, 2007 - 5:37 AM CLEVELAND (Ticker) -- LeBron James made sure the game was decided before the final play.

James answered his critics by scoring 12 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter and adding nine rebounds and nine assists, lifting the Cleveland Cavaliers to a much-needed 88-82 victory over the top-seeded Detroit Pistons in Game Three of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.

The superstar forward had help from his supporting cast as Zyrdunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Sasha Pavlovic combined for 41 points on 17-of-33 shooting for the Cavaliers, who now trail the Pistons, 2-1, with Game Four here on Tuesday.

"It's all or nothing at this point," said James. "You either make it a series at 2-1 or make the impossible and be down 3-0. It's common sense. For me it was the biggest game of my career and I was happy that my teammates were able to help me get through it."

After two close losses in the series' first two contests, Cleveland outscored Detroit, 26-19, in the final period to secure the victory. James was the catalyst in the final 12 minutes, nailing shots from all angles.

"(LeBron) set the tone," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "He knows this is his team. He knows we go as he goes and he's not afraid to step up and take responsibility for it and that's what he did today."

James highlighted his performance with a high-flying jam over 6-11 Rasheed Wallace and a fade-away 3-pointer to make it 84-76 with 2:33 left - Cleveland's biggest lead of the game.

"(The dunk) was sick. It really sparked the ballclub when he did it and he makes those type of plays all the time," Cleveland's Daniel Gibson said.

Detroit then reeled off six straight points, forcing James to come up with the game's biggest shot. After a timeout, the superstar forward drained an off-balance jumper from the right elbow to make it 86-82 with 16.3 seconds remaining.

"I thought we were aggressive (in the final two minutes)," Brown said. "We weren't back on our heels. I thought our guys did solid job of attacking and not settling. And then LeBron stepped up and put us on his shoulders and he said, 'Come along for the ride,' and we all hopped on, including me."

After losing Game Two, 79-76, Cleveland hopes it is on its way to repeating the success it enjoyed last season against Detroit in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Down 2-0, the Cavaliers came back home for Game Three and ripped off three straight wins, pushing Detroit to the brink of elimination.

"The mindset that I had today coming to this ballgame was we have to win, simple as that," James said. "We have to win. And me being the leader of this team, I have to be the guy that sparks this team. At the same time, my teammates, when they see that, they have to respond with me and I guess we did."

Cleveland's success is directly linked to James, who has been at the center of two controversial last-second plays already in this series. Normally a welcome situation, the Cavaliers failed twice on frantic final sequences with the ball starting in James' hands.

In Game One, the superstar forward - with a clear path to the hoop - decided to pass to Donyell Marshall, who missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer. In Game Two, James drove to the basket and missed an off-balance runner with Pistons guard Richard Hamilton all over him.

Hamilton appeared to have fouled James but no call was made, causing Cavaliers coach Mike Brown to stomp around the sideline in disbelief. But after the game, both James and Brown said that Cleveland was a "no-excuse" team and would not place their fate in the hands of the referees.

Critics certainly will not make excuses for James, who has been maligned for his lack of a killer instinct. After the two losses, the inevitable comparisons to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant resurfaced, labeling James as an underachiever in the biggest moments - the exact opposite of the aforementioned duo.

But the 22-year-old superstar made an emphatic statement at the outset Sunday, slamming home two eye-popping dunks in the opening minutes as the Cavaliers reeled off the first six points of the game.

"It's the first time in my career I've ever showed up to the gym three hours before a game," James said. "I usually take my nap before the game and I woke up earlier today, so I had nothing else to do. I didn't want to sit around. I didn't want to continue to answer my phone about tickets, so I came to the gym."

James scored 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting in the opening half to help Cleveland take a 46-43 halftime lead. However, the Cavaliers came out flat yet again in third quarter.

Cleveland has been outscored by 49 points in the third quarter so far this postseason. On Sunday, the Cavaliers were outscored, 20-16, as James netted just one point and took only one shot.

But it was a different story in the fourth quarter for James, who shot 12-of-21 from the field, including 2-of-3 on 3-pointers. Thanks to its best player, Cleveland shot 49 percent (33-of-67) from the field.

"Our defense wasn't as good as it was last game," Detroit's Tayshaun Prince said. "Great players step up and (LeBron) took advantage of us."

Chauncey Billups, who has struggled with his shot and sloppy play all series, scored 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting for the Pistons, who shot 45 percent (30-of-67) from the field, including 5-of-15 from the arc.

"If (Hamilton) and me are having a bad night at the same time it's going to be tough for us to win," Billups said. "It doesn't happen often. Sometimes, one of us can get going. Tonight, neither one of us could get going. We still had chances to win the game."

In 38-plus minutes, Hamilton shot just 2-for-8 and finished with seven points.

"(Cleveland is) trying to be overly aggressive with us on our pick-and-rolls and trapping me on our pin-downs," Hamilton said. "We just have to find other ways to get shots and get our bigs more involved."

Detroit coach Flip Saunders acknowledged that the likelihood of a Pistons' victory is directly related to the play of Billups and Hamilton.

"Because we're geared so much to our two guards being our leaders, we've got to get those guys going," he said. "Because what happens is, when your guards aren't scoring sometimes, it sucks their energy out a little bit."