LeBron James dropped to his knees and slapped the floor with his hand.
He was exhausted and exhilarated – and one win from the NBA Finals.
James shook off an atrocious shooting start and withstood Atlanta’s gritty comeback to record a triple-double, and the Cleveland Cavaliers took a 3-0 lead in the NBA semi-final Eastern Conference finals with a 114-111 win in overtime on Sunday night over the Hawks.
James missed his first 10 shots, but finished with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. The Cavs needed every single one of them to hold off the top-seeded Hawks, who fought Cleveland until the final seconds despite being without injured shooter Kyle Korver and losing Al Horford, who was ejected in the first half.
James, who favoured his right leg for most of the fourth quarter and OT, hit a three-pointer with 36.4 seconds left to put the Cavs ahead by one, and the superstar dropped a runner with 12.8 left to make it 114-111.
“He just wouldn’t let us lose,” coach David Blatt said.
Atlanta had two chances to tie it in the final seconds, but Shelvin Mack missed two three-pointers.
When the final horn sounded, James collapsed to the floor and had to be helped to his feet by his teammates. It was their turn to carry him.
“Started out the game just out of character, out of rhythm. But I had to make a difference,” James said. “It’s a great feeling to be able to make plays for your teammates. I’m happy I was able to make a few.”
James will have just one day to rest up before the Cavs try to earn their second Finals trip – and the fifth in a row for James – in Game 4 on Tuesday night.
Jeff Teague scored 30 points and Paul Millsap 22 for the Hawks, who scratched and clawed for 53 minutes.
Down 10 in the fourth, the Hawks showed championship toughness and nearly pulled off a win that would have guaranteed them another home game on Thursday. They’ll have to dig deep again, and they are facing long odds to win the series as no NBA team have ever overcome a 3-0 deficit.
“I’m very proud of the way our guys competed,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Teague dropped a step-back jumper with 55 seconds left to put the Hawks up 111-109, but James answered – following an offensive rebound by Tristan Thompson – to knock down a corner three like the one he made at the buzzer to beat Chicago in the second round, making it 112-111 with 36.4 seconds left.
James then hit his runner over Millsap and the Cavs and 20,000 fans held their breath as Mack took two cracks at the rim.
The Cavs were again missing all-star guard Kyrie Irving, sidelined for his second straight game with an injured left knee.
But Cleveland have James, and even on a night when his shot wasn’t falling, he carried the Cavs, who can earn their first trip to the Finals since James took them there in 2007.
Matthew Dellavedova and JR Smith added 17 points apiece for Cleveland.
The Hawks took a one-point lead into the third quarter when James decided to seize control of the game. He recorded 15 points, six rebounds and six assists in the period as Cleveland went ahead by 10.
Already in a bind, the Hawks were dealt another major blow when Horford was ejected in the final minute of the first half for throwing an elbow at Dellavedova’s head.
As the two hustled for a loose ball on the floor, Dellavedova rolled up on Horford’s right leg and the Atlanta big man responded by bringing his right arm down hard and appearing to connect with the side of the scrappy Australian guard’s face.
The three officials took their time watching a review of the play before assessing Horford a Flagrant 2 and tossing him. At that point, Horford had been the Hawks’ best player with 14 points.
“I did think he went at me, but I should have handled it better,” Horford said. “Shouldn’t have gotten caught up in that and it’s something I’ll definitely learn from.”
James went 0-for-9 from the field in the first quarter and didn’t score his first point until he rolled in a free throw with 8:05 left in the second. His first field goal came 61 seconds later, and with his shot not falling, James seemed more intent on setting up his teammates than trying to score.
Without Korver, the Hawks were missing one of their most reliable offensive weapons, though the dead-eyed shooter had been off the mark during much of this post-season. He was replaced in the starting line-up by Kent Bazemore, who earlier in the day stood by his comments that he believed the Hawks were the better team.
The Hawks started well, getting eight points from Horford while taking a 12-4 lead. But his ejection was costly and the Hawks are now one loss from having their season end.
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