Monday, March 15, 2004

James, Cavaliers continue playoff push

Cleveland 107, Indiana 104

The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - LeBron James slipped on an orange No. 23 Cavaliers' throwback jersey - his own.

The rookie's retro look wasn't the only fashion statement in Gund Arena on Sunday. At long last, even the Cavaliers are back in style.

James scored 26 points and forced Ron Artest to take a tough 3-pointer as the final horn sounded, leading the Cavaliers to their sixth straight win, 107-104 Sunday over the Indiana Pacers.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas made two free throws with 36 seconds left and forced a big turnover seconds later for the Cavs, who improved to 10-3 since the All-Star break.

Many of those wins had come against some of the league's weaker teams, but by beating the NBA-leading Pacers, Cleveland strengthened its hold on a playoff spot and legitimized an improbable turnaround season.

"We feel like we're one of the best teams in the East," James said, "and we're proving ourselves."

Sure enough. The Cavs (30-36), who won just 17 games last season, have won six in a row for the first time since Dec. 5-16, 2000. And suddenly, talk of making the playoffs has given way to speculation about whom they'll play.

"I think this win shows that we're a team to be reckoned with," point guard Jeff McInnis said. "We know we can play with anybody that puts an NBA uniform on. But we're not going to get cocky or overconfident, though. We'll just keep going out and doing our thing."

Jermaine O'Neal had 32 points for the Pacers, who had their seven-game winning streak stopped. Indiana lost in Gund Arena for the first time since 1998 after winning 12 in a row.

Both teams played with a playoff-like intensity and performed as if something bigger was on the line.

Fittingly, the see-saw game came down to Indiana's final possession.

With the score at 107-104, Indiana set up for a final play with 4 seconds left, but Artest never got a good look with James in his face and misfired on his 3-pointer as time expired.

"I just fell short," Artest said. "I'm glad I got that shot out of the way now so when the playoffs come and I'm in that situation, I'm sure it will go down."

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Which Xavier win was bigger: UC when the Bearcats were ranked No. 1 or No. 1 St. Joseph's?