May 10, 2009

ATLANTA -- Wrapped in towels from head to toe, LeBron James looked more mummy than king. He sat in the corner of the visitor's locker room at Philips Arena, put his head back against the wall and shut his eyes.

What thoughts were going through the greatest basketball player on Earth's mind as he iced his knees and soaked his feet? Was he thinking about how he controlled virtually every aspect of Cleveland's 97-82 win (RECAP | BOX) over the helpless Hawks in Game 3? Was he plotting a sweep for Monday night to earn some extra rest for his taxed body? Was he dreaming about the ultimate victory parade in Cleveland that could await in June?

Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry approached the King's corner, saw his star's trance-like state under his towels, and walked away with a big smile. Hey, Ferry seemed to think, if he scores 47 points, grabs 12 rebounds and dishes out eight assists, he can wrap as many towels around his head as he wants.

Around LeBron, various Cavaliers talked about how their star propelled them to this near-clinching series victory. Joe Smith said James, "put us on his back and carried us." Guard Delonte West said James "thrives under pressure because he doesn't feel it." And veteran Ben Wallace simply said, "We go where he goes."

The Hawks (figuratively) threw some punches. Unlike in Cleveland, Atlanta showed some heart, protecting the rim, getting out on the break and attacking the basket. Joe Johnson (21 points) did not play passively, and the Hawks turned the ball over just once in the first quarter.

"It's not like we didn't show up," said Josh Smith, who had 18 points and five rebounds.

No, they showed up, and after a very strong half on their home court they trailed 47-46 thanks to James, who has seemingly scored on the last possession of every quarter this series. He had a hand in 13 of Cleveland's 17 first-half baskets either by assists or scoring the hoop himself, thwarting an energized team almost by himself.

"I knew how important this game was," James said. "I needed to let my team know early how I was feeling."

Cavs guard Mo Williams said James told him before the game he felt "excellent," and then he went out and played like it.

James drained five three-pointers, shot 60 percent from the floor and had one turnover in 43 minutes. In the second half, the Cavs' offense became James dribbling at midcourt and then making something happen.

"At one point, I saw all five (defenders) looking at LeBron," Williams said. "That defense isn't going to win too many games against us."

The Cavs led 72-65 at the end of three (thanks to another quarter-ending drive by James) and stretched it out early in the fourth when James asked coach Mike Brown not to give him his customary rest early in the quarter. The strategy worked, as James continued to dominate until he put the Cavs a game away from the Eastern Conference finals.

"I've seen LeBron do a lot of things," said Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who scored most of his 14 points off James passes. "Sometimes we take for granted how good he is."

Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The big man was 6-for-9 from the floor and had 14 points and eight rebounds. His reliable jump shot burned the Hawks when they paid too much attention to James.

Zaza Pachulia. Rather than give the Hawks a lift off the bench, Pachulia did little in his 12 minutes, and then got tossed out of the game for arguing a legitimate blocking foul on him. He had four fouls and three points, and did not make the energy plays he customarily makes.

The Cavs put together a 9-0 run with 9:10 to play that pushed a six-point lead to 15 and pretty much put the game out of reach. James had six of the nine, including one ridiculous fallaway.

The Cavs outrebounded the Hawks 46-23, with James leading the way with 12 and Anderson Varejao grabbing 10, including seven offensive.

LeBron entertained before the game, as well, swishing an underhanded half-court shot during warmups on his third attempt. ... Cavs coach Mike Brown was asked before the game if his players were aware of the different statistical records they were approaching in terms of consecutive wins and field goal percentage defense, and Brown appeared ready to answer "no." Instead, he called an unsuspecting Darnell Jackson to come in front of the media to answer the question. Jackson said, yes, LeBron talks about goals before they take the floor in terms of field goal percentage defense and other statistics. Brown was clearly surprised. "You learn something new every day," he said. "I'm just trying to win games by one point."

The question is whether this one ends in a sweep on Monday or gets back to Cleveland for a Game 5 finale. One thing the Hawks can take away is they looked healthy. Johnson and Al Horford did not look limited, and Marvin Williams played a bigger role off the bench than he has in a while. It took a man-sized effort from Mr. James to put this one in Cleveland's corner. The problem for the Hawks is, he's got plenty more in him. Cavs in four.

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