James lives up to lofty expectations with brilliant performance

Jun 1, 2007 - 10:56 PM By Anthony Olivieri PA SportsTicker Staff Writer

LeBron James has had plenty of expectations since arriving as one of the most-hyped stars in the history of the league. In his fourth season - and his second trip to the playoffs - he has finally lived up to them.

James put on one of the most astonishing displays in NBA playoff history Thursday, scoring 48 points, including 29 of his team's final 30 en route to a memorable 109-107 double-overtime victory against the top-seeded Detroit Pistons to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

While James has been an incredible performer in his short career, he has been a lightning rod for controversy - with critics expecting more out of him, especially in the waning minutes of crucial contests.

The criticism continued at the beginning of this series for James, who came up short on two last-second plays in Games One and Two - both Cleveland losses. But he made sure it was an entirely different story Thursday.

"Just the simple fact of us coming here in Game One and Two and playing so well and falling short, and throughout this whole game we played the same way," James said after Game Five. "The same way we played in Games One and Two, and we couldn't leave out of here without getting at least one win, just as well as we've played in this building, and that was just my mind-set."

In the first two contests, the superstar forward failed to shoot enough in the fourth quarter, even passing up an apparent open layup to pass to teammate Donyell Marshall, who missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds of Game One.

But despite the clamoring for more assertiveness, James refused to admit any wrongdoing.

"I go for the winning play," James said after Game One. "If two guys come at you and your teammate is open, then give it up, simple as that. You've just got to take what's there. It's not about taking a high volume of shots, it's about trying to win the basketball game."

The 22-year-old James has not been cut any slack for his age and relative inexperience in those situations and never has been, dating to his emergence as a media star during his high school days.

As a junior, James appeared on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" and "ESPN The Magazine" as his popularity exploded, causing his high school team to move its practices and games to a local college gym.

The young superstar also earned national television and regional pay-per-view coverage for his squad. And after skipping college and getting drafted first overall in the 2003 draft, James nearly recorded a triple-double in his first game against the Sacramento Kings, adding to his legend.

The three-time All-Star kept it going in his first playoff appearance, notching a triple-double against the Washington Wizards last season. But with critics expecting James to be the next Michael Jordan, his postseason learning curve has been translated into unrealized expectations - before Thursday night.

"Just for the simple fact that we won the ballgame means more than anything besides my performance," James said. "If I did everything I did tonight and we lost, it means nothing. So the win is the most important thing for us, and we are one more win from getting to our goal."

In Game Five, James quieted his critics in overwhelming fashion, scoring 29 of the Cavaliers' final 30 points and every one in both overtime sessions. The only point not scored by James from the 6:05 mark on in regulation was a lone free throw by Drew Gooden.

According to Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, James' inexperience may have contributed to his success.

"He's 22 years old or something like that, so I don't know if he thought this game was important," Brown said. "He's a pretty smart guy. He might know, he might not know. I think he just did what he felt he needed to do for us to win the ballgame. I don't think he was trying to set any historical mark or anything like that.

"He just did what he felt he was supposed to do to help us win, and that's defending, and he scored for us late in the fourth quarter and in overtime. I don't know. That was a heck of a game for him, but for him to score 29 of 30, that completely blew my mind. I don't know what he can't do."

James started his scoring binge when his squad needed him most. With the Cavaliers trailing, 88-81, after Detroit's 10-0 run in regulation, James hit a 3-pointer and slammed home a thunderous dunk to cap an 8-0 for an 89-88 lead with 31 seconds left.

Then, after Pistons guard Chauncey Billups regained the lead with a clutch 3-pointer, James would not be denied, blowing past Detroit defensive specialist Tayshaun Prince and jamming in the tying bucket with 9.5 seconds left to force the first overtime.

"The Pistons do a great job of making runs and you kind of never know when it's going to happen, but when it happens it's quick," James said. "So I just wanted to try to be aggressive and not allow them to make too much of a run and give ourselves an opportunity to win down at the end of regulation. And it took two overtimes to do it, but as a team we definitely ... this is a gutted-out victory."

The extra sessions were no different as James scored on a variety of jaw-dropping moves. He scored all nine of his team's points in the first extra session but it was just a prelude to a dramatic second overtime.

James started the second with a quick jumper to make it 102-100. After falling behind, 107-104, the superstar forward then nailed a sensational tying 3-pointer in front of the Pistons' bench with 1:14 left.

The remarkable James then capped his performance in a fitting manner, swooping to the basket, adjusting in mid-air and scooping in a smooth layup to clinch the victory for the Cavaliers with 2.2 seconds left in the second overtime.

Detroit was maligned for not taking the ball out of James' hands and forcing others to make shots.

"We tried to get the ball out of his hands, trap, and he pulled it back out and we came back and we didn't rotate over," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "I have to look more at the film. We wanted to trap and get it out of his hands as much as we can, but he did a very good job as far as coming into the trap, dribbling out of trap, you know. They rolled hard, we went to try to cover people and he re-attacked."

However, it may not have mattered what defensive strategy Detroit decided to employ and, based on how James looked after the game, he put it all on the line.

"I'm everything, I'm banged up, I'm winded, I'm fatigued," James said. "I've got all day (Friday). It's going to be tough to get some rest when you got a crazy 2-year-old running around the house. So, hopefully, I can take him to one of his grandmas' house."

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