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Published: Sunday, 5/14/2006

Fortunately for Cleveland fans, LeBron is growing up quickly

CLEVELAND - Yes, Cleveland, we finally have a series.

To be the best, you have to beat the best. Game by game, step by step, LeBron James is learning how it's done.

The best and most hotly contested game of the Eastern Conference semifinals between Cleveland and Detroit was a tribute to James and his ability to lead the Cavaliers to victory.

James was actually better than advertised. He was spectacular in posting his second-career playoff triple-double and dominating play in the fourth quarter of Cleveland's 86-77 comeback win at Quicken Loans Arena.

"He's a great player,'' Detroit's Chauncey Billups said of James. "He does things most guys can't do. He put his team on his back.''

James, who willingly carried the load and then some, never got tired. He's 21 and full of energy. Having three days off between games was a godsend for James. He played the entire 48 minutes and went for 21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, four steals, and one block.

He was a human-highlight film who not only played the male lead but also directed the action and wrote the script.

"I can go on and on with the different contributions individually [from other players], but again it comes back to our guy, LeBron James,'' said Cleveland coach Mike Brown said, whose team trails 2-1 in the series. "I say it all the time - he's special.''

When it comes to James, you can never say special often enough. In fact, calling James special doesn't do him justice. Once he learns how to dominate at both ends - and based off his Game 3 performance that may be sooner rather than later - there won't be anything that James can't do on the basketball court.

"I didn't have one of my big offensive nights, but I just did it on the defensive end, got a lot of rebounds, and got some steals,'' James said.

Basketball can be a simple game. At least James made it seem that way yesterday. James' outside shot was shaky, clanging long off the rim. He was 9-of-18 from the field but connected on just one 3-pointer.

Instead of forcing the issue with his offense, James became a full-fledged playmaker, displaying a maturity far beyond his years and a willingness to take a backseat to his less-heralded teammates.

His ability to read Detroit's fast-closing double-teams and consistently locate the open man allowed energetic forward Anderson Varejao, the only Cleveland big man unafraid to challenge the Pistons inside, to score 16 points on six-of-seven shooting.

But James outdid himself in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points and delivering a back-breaking 3-pointer for an 81-74 lead with 1:10 remaining.

"It's never my plan to take over. I don't plan what I'm going to do before the game. I just react to the game,'' James said. "I get doubled, I give the ball up. It's been my motto all year, it's been my motto all my life, since I started playing basketball.

"The Pistons are a great defensive team. When I see a double team, I give the ball up. But I saw some creases in the fourth quarter, and I was able to attack and give ourselves an opportunity to win.''

It takes a team with an iron will and a willingness to match Detroit's incredible intensity. The Cavaliers erased a 10-point third-quarter deficit and regained the lead for the first time in the second half at 64-62 on Varejao's 3-point play off a James feed.

It isn't enough to kick the Pistons when they're down. You have to put your foot on their neck and continue applying pressure. The Cavaliers never stopped squeezing. James led by example, stepping it up on defense.

After being burned by Tayshaun Prince for a pair of 20-point games in the series, James hunkered down and held Prince to 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting.

Late in the game with Cleveland ahead 74-70, James baited Richard Hamilton into making a crosscourt pass to Prince.

Before the ball reached its target, James picked it off and headed the other way. Fouled, he made both free throws for a six-point advantage.

"We maintained focus throughout the game, which shows how much we've grown,'' James said. "We stayed poised.''

Despite the absence of guard Larry Hughes, who left the team after the death of his brother, and the Cavs being held to 53 points through three quarters, the Cavs somehow persevered.

And it didn't hurt that LeBron James was, well, LeBron James.



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