CLEVELAND - LeBron James was perfect when he had to be.
He scored 32 of his 36 in the second half, including 19 in the fourth quarter and 12 in the final 1:50 to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 98-94 win over the Atlanta Hawks last night.
James, who just celebrated birthday No. 23 - to match his uniform number - began the new year with another dominating performance, one that has almost become routine for Cleveland's star of stars.
"He got into one of those zones we all love," Cavaliers guard Daniel Gibson said. "It was fun to watch."
After taking only five shots and scoring four points in the first half, James dropped in 13 points in the third and then took over in the fourth, scoring 19 of Cleveland's 22 over the last 6:51 and making 6-of-6 free throws in the last 16 seconds.
"I demanded the ball, went up there and made them," said James, criticized in the past for suspect free-throw shooting.
Down the stretch, James also got an assist on a 17-foot jumper with 2:33 left by Larry Hughes, who came in shooting just 27 percent in his past five games. Hughes' jumper usually draws groans from Cavs fans, who have been tough on him all season.
But this one, which put the Cavaliers ahead 85-82, was a welcome sight.
Hughes, though, quieted his critics for the night by going 6-for-10.
"I felt pretty good," said Hughes. "I was able to get some open looks and just step in and not worry about anything and just knock it down."
James wasn't perfect in the fourth. After his 3-pointer with 5:23 left put the Cavs up 83-79, he missed four consecutive attempts before knocking down three straight jumpers to give Cleveland a 91-86 lead with 37 seconds to go.
Although he briefly lost his touch, James didn't once think about passing up a shot.
"I'm going to continue to shoot," he said. "I've always got confidence."
Hughes finished with 14 points and Drew Gooden 13 for Cleveland.
Joe Johnson scored 24 points and Josh Smith 20 for Atlanta, which could do little to stop James when it mattered most. Cleveland's all-star forward was feeling it in the fourth, taking and making jumper after jumper as the helpless Hawks looked on.
"He stepped up," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said of James. "That's what he does. He makes plays. The guy's incredible."
The Hawks hung around, though, as Johnson made two straight 3-pointers in the last 11.9 seconds. But each time, Atlanta put James on the line, and he calmly knocked down his attempts.
NOTES: The Hawks have lost four in a row Cleveland and 13 of 16 since 2003-04. ... James plans to move into his new 35,440-square-foot house sometime in the summer of 2008. ...Atlanta's 9-4 record in December was the club's best in the month since 1993-94.