Saturday May 23rd, 2009

CLEVELAND -- He sprinted away from the basket out past the three-point line to catch the inbounds pass at the height of his leap. LeBron James landed with the ball as if upon a diving board that shot him back up high. He was looking at the basket with his chin near his right shoulder and the goal like a needle's orange eye slim and small and 25 feet away.

"It was crazy watching the ball when he threw it up,'' said Orlando center Dwight Howard an hour after the Magic's shocking 96-95 (RECAP | BOX) loss in Game 2 of the Eastern finals Friday. "It was like watching a movie. The ball was just spinning, it was like watching a real movie.''

It followed the arc of Carlton Fisk's home run in 1975, of Doug Flutie's Hail Mary in 1984, of Garfield Heard's turnaround jumper going up and Magic Johnson's baby hook hovering over the Big Three and Michael Jordan's last shot going down. It traced along the arc of those memories and by the end of its flight it had created a memory of its own.

"That's a shot you will see for a long time, you know?'' James said. "You watch classic games and you see Jordan hit game-winners, and you go all the way back -- Jerry West hitting game-winners, Magic Johnson going across the lane and hitting the jump hook against Boston. You see all these type of shots, and man ... hopefully I can stick my foot in that category.''

Preceding the shot had been a long deep breath of silence. The Magic had been exactly one second away from preserving a comeback 95-93 victory and celebrating a 2-0 lead on their way back to Orlando for two potentially clinching games. Against that likelihood, this shot that James made Friday may be viewed one month from now as the miracle that swung the championship back his way, back into the arms of his hometown of Cleveland. The people here have benefited so very little from miracles that they didn't know how to believe in them. During the timeout in which the winning play was drawn -- drawn up in vain, it turned out -- the arena JumboTron tried all of its motivational tricks to inspire the Cleveland fans to scream and cheer, but they weren't buying it.

They stood in front of their seats quiet and stunned that the NBA's best team and their league MVP were on the verge of wasting 66 regular-season wins, two sweeps in the opening rounds and a No. 1 seed overall. Scores of fans climbed the stairs to leave the building, so little did they believe. So much would they miss.

"It is the biggest shot I have made in my career,'' James said.

After ceding homecourt advantage and a 16-point lead while losing Game 1 in the final seconds, the Cavaliers launched themselves into this evening with the determination of a champion-to-be. They went up 23 in the second quarter, but it wasn't enough. The visitors trimmed their deficit down to 56-44 at halftime, to 75-69 heading into the fourth, and then on a runner by masked rookie Courtney Lee with 5:27 remaining they had themselves their first lead at 86-84. They were running their offense through 6-foot-10 Hedo Turkoglu (21 points), their power forward Rashard Lewis (23) was making big threes, and they were on the verge of another upset despite a meager 10 points from Howard, their All-NBA center.

James was committing offensive fouls instead of going to the free-throw line. Mo Williams was 7 of 21 from the field, though his slump appeared to be lifting with a 3-of-5 fourth quarter after coach Mike Brown went Vince Lombardi during a timeout while demanding he be more aggressive. Baskets were traded back and forth until Cavaliers defender Sasha Pavlovic was whistled for a blocking foul against Turkoglu near the three-point line and the game tied at 93-93. That play enabled Orlando to re-start its offense with 13.6 seconds remaining and the shot-clock turned off: An opportunity to win without providing LeBron the last shot.

Turkoglu pulled up for a foul-line jumper over Pavlovic that gave Orlando its two-point lead with :01.0 glowing from the arena clocks.

In the ensuing silence, 20,000 minds could easily be read. A 2-0 deficit ... a loss in the series ... the departure of LeBron in 2010 ... all of this misery snowballing in the spring of what should have been their championship year. It was going to end like all of the other seasons in all of the other sports.

"To have that type of confidence in yourself, to know that there's one second on the clock and you're ending this thing right now, and if it doesn't end right now (you) have big enough shoulders to take care of whatever the outcome is,'' said Brown. "To be able to take that on and have that type of confidence and take that shot? Not many people could do it.''

In the huddle Brown drew up plans for James to curl around Turkoglu to the basket, where he would catch and finish an inbound lob from Williams. But Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy had seen the Cavaliers run that play before. The Magic were ready for it and Turkoglu cut off LeBron's lane.

"I told Mo whatever it was going to take for me, I was going to come get the ball,'' James said. "No matter what happened, I'm going to come get the ball and I'm going to knock down the shot.''

In Williams's mind, the five seconds were slipping away, with no more timeouts to use. He saw LeBron bounce off Turkoglu and separate himself, turning to sprint away from his defender past the keytop like the wide receiver he used to be running a slant pattern. Williams's zipping pass hit his hands just above the shoulder.

"I just took my time,'' James said. "A second is a long time for me. For others, it is very short.''

He talked about how he had practiced making last-second shots as a child growing up in Akron.

"When I caught it square, it felt great,'' he said. "It was in the air, it even looked like it was going in.''

Williams was not so sure. "The whole time, even before (the referee) handed me the ball, I was praying. Please, please God, something,'' Williams said. "I knew he got the shot off. It felt like it took so long to get to the rim. The whole time I said a prayer, like a ten-minute prayer during the whole time.''

When the ball ricocheted down off the back rim, it was as if 20,000 pilot lights had been turned on all at once in the stands encircling the court. James jumped up and down like the child he used to be when he was practicing for the shot he had just made.

"You couldn't hear anything,'' James said after he had scored the last of his 35 points.

The Magic still have home-court advantage, but they have now lost four playoff games on buzzer-beating shots and none of them worse than this. Is there a feeling that a miraculous shot by LeBron James is not to be wasted, that it will be turned into something larger?

Yes, that is the feeling here in Mudville. Mighty Casey did not strike out. Quite the opposite.

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