ORLANDO, Fla. – LeBron James had no shot this time.
Dwight Howard scored 24 points – 14 on free throws – and Rafer Alston added 18 as the Orlando Magic, sick of seeing replays of James’ dramatic Game 2 buzzer-beater, downed the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-89 on Sunday night to take a 2-1 lead in an Eastern Conference finals getting nastier by the minute.
James scored 41 points on just 11-of-28 shooting and missed five free throws in the fourth quarter. But once again, Cleveland’s superstar didn’t get enough help from his teammates. Mo Williams, who needed four stitches to close two gashes around his left eye after being elbowed in the first half, Delonte West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas shot a combined 13-of-37.
Game 4 is Tuesday night.
The first two games of the series in Cleveland were each decided by one point. This one was resolved by elbows, shoves and hard fouls.
Howard, Ilgauskas and Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao all fouled out as the officials called 58 personals, handed out two technicals, a flagrant and spent half the night stepping between players on both sides as tempers flared inside an overheated Amway Arena.
“We just kept fighting. That’s what we got to do, we fight to the end,” Howard said. “We can’t worry about nothing, we can’t worry about the calls, can’t worry about nobody else. We just got to get out there and play.”
When the referees weren’t making peace, they were sending players to the free-throw line.
Unlike Games 1 and 2, the Magic didn’t fall behind by double digits and need to rally. They got out fast, stayed close despite Howard’s early foul trouble and put the Cavs away at the line.
Howard, a notoriously poor foul shooter, went 14-of-19 from the line and the Magic made 39 of 51 attempts. In the fourth quarter alone, Orlando made 19 of 23 to hold off the top-seeded Cavaliers, who began the playoffs with eight straight wins and have now dropped two of their last three.
Cleveland better figure out a way to win in steamy Florida fast. The Cavs, who were thumped here by 29 on April 3, have six lost six of their last seven in Orlando.
The Magic seem to have a spell over the Cavs.
Despite his lack of help, James kept Cleveland within striking distance in the fourth and scored on a three-point play while getting Howard’s fifth foul with 2:34 to play to pull the Cavs to 90-86.
Howard, wrapped up underneath, then made two free throws before James was fouled and rimmed out two at the other end. On Orlando’s next trip, Mickael Pietrus, who came off the bench to score 16, grabbed a long rebound, got fouled and was pushed in the back by West, who was handed a technical.
Pietrus made his free throws to make it 94-86 and the Magic appeared to have things under control when Howard caught James from behind and blocked his three-pointer. The refs saw it otherwise and called a three-shot foul on Superman, who couldn’t believe it.
James made all three shots, but the Cavs were short on time. Rashard Lewis’ free throw made it 95-89 and after another Cleveland miss, Hedo Turkoglu was fouled and made two more to finish the job. Turkoglu was just 1-of-11 from the floor but made 11 free throws and added 10 rebounds and seven assists.
After sitting the final seven minutes of the first half with three fouls, Howard made it through 9:10 of the third quarter before getting No. 4 – and technical No. 5 of the post-season.
He was called for pushing Ben Wallace underneath, and upset with the whistle, he said something on his way to the bench that referee Joey Crawford didn’t like and was given a technical. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy had warned his star to keep his composure because the league automatically suspends a player for one game after he receives his seventh technical foul in the playoffs.
“I didn’t say anything to Joey Crawford,” Howard said. “The response was to the other team. I didn’t say anything to Joey Crawford. I’m not stupid enough to get in his face and say anything, so I try to keep it to the other team.”
The Magic led 29-23 when Howard picked up his third personal foul with 7:27 remaining in the first half when he bumped James ever so slightly on a drive.
Less than two minutes later, Orlando was behind by five.
During the stretch, Orlando’s Anthony Johnson rocked Williams with a left elbow to the face that dropped Cleveland’s point guard, who laid face down on the floor for several seconds. When he got up, Williams, who was called for a block, was bleeding from his eyebrow and left cheek.
During the timeout, the officiating crew huddled and decided to call a flagrant-1 on Johnson. Williams, who had hurried from the floor for medical treatment, came back out to shoot the free throws with his eye already severely swollen. If he had not returned to shoot, Williams would not have been able to play anymore.
Gritting his teeth, Williams, looking like a boxer needing a corner cut man, made both shots and immediately headed to the locker room for stitches.
He was back on the floor with about two minutes left.
Before the game, James said he expected a physical game.
“When you play a team over and over you start to dislike them more,” he said. “It just happens. It’s got to be a little chippy.”
Was it ever.
Notes: Celebrity row included Tiger Woods, NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Carlos Boozer, rapper Lil’ Wayne and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. … Cavaliers coach Mike Brown joked that he can’t turn on any TV channel without seeing James and the “Shot That Saved Cleveland” in Game 2. “They even showed highlights of it on HGTV,” he said. “That’s what I watch. It’s got to be the best shot from him that I’ve seen.” … Following the morning shootaround, James made a $100 bet with Williams that he could make a shot sitting from a courtside seat within three tries. He swished his second attempt. … Van Gundy remains amazed the officiating crew missed Williams firing the ball at Howard in the first quarter of Game 2. “There were roughly 22,000 people in that building and three people didn’t see it.”