By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008
CLEVELAND, April 30 -- LeBron James ground his teeth, clenched his fists and marched to the Cleveland Cavaliers' bench Wednesday night. He pumped his arms, unable to contain his excitement, and the sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena responded in kind.
With 1 minute 47 seconds left in Game 5 of this best-of-seven series, the conclusion of the Washington Wizards' season had an air of inevitability to the 20,562 fans in the building. James had just blocked a shot by Caron Butler, grabbed the rebound and found Delonte West cutting to the basket for a layup. Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson fouled him on the play, and West made the free throw, giving his team a five-point lead.
But West, who put the Wizards on the brink of elimination with a crushing three-pointer at the end of Game 4 in Washington on Sunday, didn't feel as if the job was finished.
"At that point in time in the game, none of the Wizards looked like they was down," West said. "They didn't look like the game was over, and it wasn't over."
But when the game finally was over, James looked around in disbelief because the Wizards escaped with an 88-87 victory, and not only had he missed the final shot of the game, but he also failed to get a foul call in his own building.
James's final drive to the basket ended with him bouncing off Darius Songaila and his shot banking off the backboard and dancing off the rim.
"We put the ball in the best player's hands and we told him to go make the play, like he has for us many times before," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said. "That's up to the referees to make the call. We're a no-excuse team."
James said afterward that he was fouled on the play, "but that's not the reason why we lost that game. We had some other plays throughout the whole game that we could've made better. We can't rely on me getting a foul at the end of the ballgame."
The Cavaliers can look to a number of other reasons why they were unable to take advantage of their first opportunity to close out the Wizards, setting up a Game 6 in Washington. They shot just 36 percent from the floor and missed 16 of 25 three-point attempts. But for the first time in this series, they failed to seize control of a tight game down the stretch. They missed their final five shots -- two three-pointers, an open jumper, a rebound tip and James's layup at the buzzer -- and let the Wizards score the final six points of the game.
It was the second year in a row that Cleveland had a 3-1 lead with a chance to end a series at home and lost. Last year, the Cavaliers eventually eliminated the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals on the road in six games.
"It hurts right now, but you got another day," West said. "We lost. We'll try to go there [to Washington] and put this game out of our minds."
After West's layup, Cavaliers reserve Joe Smith blocked Songaila's layup attempt and James tried his best to quickly put away the Wizards. He stared down Stevenson at the top of the key, dribbled down the clock and fired a high-arching three-pointer that missed badly. "I know I took a bad one with us up by five. That's when the their run was triggered, from there," James said.
Butler (32 points) responded by tipping in Antawn Jamison's miss to bring his team within three. On Cleveland's next possession, Daniel Gibson missed another three-pointer from the right elbow extended, and Smith fouled Antonio Daniels on the rebound, sending Daniels to the foul line for two free throws that cut the deficit to one with 43 seconds left.
Smith then missed a wide-open baseline jumper and Zydrunas Ilgauskas missed the tip, setting up Butler's game-winning basket with 3.4 seconds left. Before the Cavaliers got the ball for the final shot, Butler walked up the James in a move reminiscent of James approaching Gilbert Arenas at the foul line near the end of Game 6 two years ago.
"He said something like, 'Miss the shot so we can come back to D.C.,' " James said. "So there it was."
Asked if he still felt as confident that the Wizards couldn't come back and win this series, James smiled. "It's not like it's over. We're still up 3-2," he said. "As long as I'm on the court and I'm out there, we got a good chance to win. Matter of fact, we got a great chance to win. Of course I'm confident."