CLEVELAND -- LeBron James called it the "biggest game of my life."
Growing gains for LeBron
And do you know why that is extra impressive?
Because he said it before the game, not after.
James might not have played the best game of his life Sunday night in scoring 32 points with 9 rebounds and 9 assists in Cleveland's 88-82 victory over Detroit in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, but two of the buckets he hit down the stretch of the fourth quarter had to be in the LBJ Career Top 10 in terms of degree of difficulty and how clutch they turned out to be.
The first, a step-back 3-pointer with 2:34 remaining, put the Cavs ahead 84-76 and sent the Q into a frenzy that made it seem as if the game was over. The Pistons kept it a game by scoring the next six points to pull within two, but James sealed the victory by hitting a 17-footer from a tough angle over Richard Hamilton to give the Cavs a four-point lead with 16.3 seconds left.
"It's all or nothing at this point," James said afterward. "You either make it a series and be 2-1, or you make it impossible and go down 3-0. It's common sense."
Indeed, it is common sense. And it was common sense beforehand. In fact, it almost went without saying that this was going to be the biggest playoff game of this postseason for James (last year's Game 7 against Detroit, in the big picture, was probably bigger). But the thing of it was, James didn't let that fact go without being said.
He stood in front of his locker 60 minutes before tip-off, a glimmer in his eye unlike anything I saw from him back in Auburn Hills, and came right out and stated it:
"It's probably the biggest game of my life and the biggest game ever for this organization, and I have to go out there and recognize it."
In losers' circles, that is what's known as setting yourself up to fail. You put extra pressure on yourself, you think about that pressure all night, and in the end, if you don't achieve the absolute best result, anything short of that is a failure.
Well, that's what James set himself up for. He shone the spotlight squarely on himself and said this is going to have to be my night, this is going to be a night that goes a long way toward defining my career.
There are only a handful of moments in this business when you can genuinely say to yourself, "I saw that guy grow up a lot tonight, right before my very eyes." I covered LeBron's Game 7 loss in Detroit a year ago, and he was brutal. I covered his loss to Greece with Team USA last summer at the World Championship in Japan, and he was helpless. I covered him at the Olympics in Athens three years ago, too, and he was a boy among men -- someone who thought he knew it all before he got there but who flew back home thoroughly humbled by such a huge humiliation on the world's biggest stage.
I also was there for "The Pass" in Game 1 of this series and "The Non-Foul" in Game 2, and I was still of the opinion that this guy had a lot of growing up to do going into Sunday night's Game 3. At some point, I figured, the guy was going to step up to the next level, but I could see it taking another year, or maybe two or three, because the leap to legitimate superstardom isn't something that comes easily -- even to the very best.
But then I went to the Cavs' locker room before the game and heard him put himself squarely on the spot. He described how he got to the gym super early, so early that the technicians were still mounting cameras on the backboard, and how he turned off his cell phone to shut off the ticket requests and started practicing his shot with three hours still left before tip-off.
He knew this was going to be a defining night for him, and you could see in his eyes that he relished what was ahead of him. He wasn't the slightest bit scared, and he put as much pressure on himself as I've ever seen an athlete do before a game.
Then he went out and backed it all up.
Backed it up like a man.
For that, he gets a heartfelt "Bravo."
But he also gets a warning: Game 4 is going to come close to being the biggest game of your life, too, LeBron. And the games after that aren't going to be cakewalks, either. So enjoy the glow of this victory, LeBron. It matches the glow on your face when you spoke the truth beforehand.
But as good as you were in this one, people will be quick to forget it if you fall on your face in the next one. For now, you've taken a big step toward legitimizing your status in this league. Now go out and do it again Tuesday, and show everyone this was no blip on the radar, this was the start of Phase 2 of LeBron James' NBA career.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
AP Photo/Mark Duncan
Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace looks shocked to be called for a blocking foul during the first quarter of a Game 3 loss to the Cavs.
There's no arguing about what the Pistons' small forward does have on the Cavs' rookie, about 90 more playoff games of experience. So when it's Prince on Gibson, one-on-one in the post, prudence would dictate that it's advantage Pistons. But logic sort of went out the window in the Cavs' 88-82 Game 3 win in the Eastern finals Sunday, when forcing LeBron James into jump shots spelled doom for Detroit and going right at an undersized and supposedly overmatched rookie proved fruitless.
When Cavs point guard Larry Hughes went down in the first half with a foot strain -- he tried to come back but was obviously limping and shut it down -- Cavs coach Mike Brown had three choices.
One was veteran Eric Snow, who is a good defender but a poor offensive player. Another was Damon Jones, who is a streaky shooter but not a good enough defender for Chauncey Billups over the long haul.
Then there was Gibson, who can shoot and has burgeoning defensive talent but is mostly devoid of playoff experience.
Brown went with option No. 3, and the Pistons responded by making him target No. 1. On this night, though, Gibson more than held his own. Guarding Billups for most of the second half, then Prince on several key possessions when the Pistons forced the Cavs into a switch on a pick-and-roll, Gibson came up big.
He was a leading part of the team effort that limited the Pistons' leader for the third straight game, as Billups made just 4-of-14 shots with 5 turnovers. In the three games of the series thus far, Billups has turned the ball over 17 times against the Cavs traps.
"I thought Daniel Gibson was huge for them today," Billups said. "He's a very good young player; he made an impact in their win."
Gibson also stymied Prince, successfully defending him three times in post-up spots, including a key strip with three minutes to play that led to a James 3-pointer and what proved to be an insurmountable lead.
"He might be 5-11, maybe 5-10; he's a little fella," Brown of his, ahem, 6-2 guard. "He did a great job of harassing him until he got help."
Gibson also had nine points of his own, tying his high of these playoffs, and a clutch 3-pointer with 4:28 left.
"It's not about being nervous, it's about understanding the situation," Gibson said. "If I have a chance to make a play, make it."
-- Brian Windhorst in Cleveland
Artem Zabelin, a 7-foot-2, 19-year-old Russian, is the true mystery man of this draft. I've come across only two NBA scouts who have seen him play live. Both came away impressed. But it's going to take a lot of faith for an NBA team to pull the trigger on him in the first round this year.
Zabelin measured 7-foot-1 in socks at the workout and has an impressive 9-foot-3 standing reach. He also has good athleticism for a big man. On his vertical jump, he nearly touched the 12-foot mark on the backboard.
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
LeBron James jams on Sheed, breaking a 68-68 tie during Cleveland's Game 3 win over the visiting Detroit Pistons.
Quote of the Day:
-- Andrew Ayres
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich are two of the best in the business, each a no-nonsense guy who challenges his team to impose its will on its opponent. In the second half of Game 3, Utah did just that. Without a host of tactical adjustments, the Jazz began by tightening up their pick-and-roll defense to control the game on that end, which in turn opened up the floodgates at the other end.
Utah's crowd helped create the physical, high-energy environment the team thrives in, and in the second half, the Jazz contained penetration, limited shots (San Antonio had just three offensive rebounds the entire game) and dictated tempo. Deron Williams picked apart San Antonio's perimeter; Carlos Boozer once again provided his club with a true a true go-to scorer; and the Jazz exhibited their own pick-and-roll proficiency.
Although Utah cannot rely on Tim Duncan once again landing in foul trouble, that combined with solid defense held him in check for the first time this series. Mehmet Okur battled Duncan for position, and Utah was more aggressive digging the post, making Duncan react.
Not only was Duncan limited to 26 minutes of action but he was in foul trouble early and consistently, meaning that from the outset he was never really able to play his game. Duncan was forced to play especially cautiously at the defensive end, which undermines much of what the Spurs are about.
The leading (and only) candidate for the Bobcats GM job at present, I'm told, is Golden State's Rod Higgins.
Michael Jordan has asked for and received permission from the Warriors to interview Higgins, according to NBA front-office sources.
Barring an unexpected snag, MJ is expected to hire Higgins formally soon, as well, which shouldn't be too surprising given that Higgins served as an assistant GM to Jordan and Wes Unseld in Washington for two-plus seasons.
Critics said he shot too much, he was too much of a ball hog, he didn't make his teammates better, he didn't trust his teammates, he could never win titles and lead the league in scoring at the same time, he had to be more unselfish like Magic and Bird (neither of whom ever led the NBA in scoring).
Many of the attributes LeBron James is being killed for not having, MJ was killed for having!
But MJ changed the paradigm of a champion.
After him, we began thinking the ultimate champion had to be nasty as all get-out, not only to his opponents but sometimes even to his teammates.
We began thinking that the ultimate champion takes his teammates to new heights not by making them better players but by putting them on his back.
Like Magic, LeBron is more in line with the old paradigm.
Ironically, it's his willingness to make that pass to Donyell Marshall -- even in a clutch situation -- that has emboldened his teammates, built up their confidence and enabled them to play at a higher level than anyone thought they could.
Trust me, if your superstar's rolling his eyes and making ugly faces every time you miss a shot, or if he decides it's just not worth it to pass you the ball when you're open because he knows you'll miss, your confidence will wane to the point that your game will go south.
Yet if he trusts you, your confidence will soar and you'll play as well as you can.
But none of that will be taken into account until LeBron wins a ring.