WASHINGTON -- With sweat pouring off of him -- and his teammates seated, huffing, below him -- LeBron James stalked up and down the bench, gesturing and screaming.
It was an impromptu players-only meeting at an odd time, the moments after the third quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 105-88 Game 6 victory on Friday over the Washington Wizards to send the Cavs into the second round. It was the fiercest James looked all night as he made his point: close it out.
The Cavs missed a chance Wednesday in Game 5 back in Cleveland, letting a fourth-quarter lead slip away. Not this time. James wouldn't allow it and his teammates, before and after his outpouring, were in step.
In four of the first five games of this series, James scored more than 30 points, but by his standards, he hadn't had a great game yet. He had had moments to be sure, especially in the closing minutes of Games 1 and 4, when he made difference-making plays. But he is at his best when his teammates are clicking around him, allowing his talents and theirs to be used fully.
So while he may have only scored 27 points on Friday, three fewer than his season and series average, it was his best overall game of the series, and he was especially masterful on the offensive end.
The Wizards, even without the suspended Darius Songaila, employed their game plan again by punishing James throughout the night. Caron Butler elbowed him in the face and then drew a technical foul when he jabbed James between the legs on a drive. Brendan Haywood poked him in the eye on a LeBron layup attempt, causing the Cavs to take a timeout so James could get some eye drops before shooting his free throws.
The Wizards tried the normal schemes, too. They double-teamed him in the post, they tilted players to his side of the floor, they put extra bodies in the paint to discourage drives -- all smart moves that have worked at times in the past. But James used the countermeasure -- the pass -- and his teammates supplied the poison: open jumpers.
Wally Szczerbiak, mired in the longest shooting slump of his career, made six 3-pointers and scored 26 points. Daniel Gibson, reminiscent of the last time he played in a Game 6, when he scored 31 points to knock out the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals last year, made four more 3s on his way to 22 points.
James also hit Zydrunas Ilgauskas for jumpers, Anderson Varejao for a layup and Joe Smith for a couple of easy hoops. When it was over, he had compiled 13 assists and just two turnovers. In addition to scoring 27 points, he assisted on 36 points, factoring in 3-pointers and free throws.
"He's a load, man," said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who has seen James and the Cavs end his season on his home floor three straight years. "He puts so much pressure on your defense if you've got support people to make shots."
Cavs coach Mike Brown wasn't as technical. He merely called James' performance "terrific" six times in one sentence.
But none of that speaks to LeBron's emotional leadership throughout the series, which was intense on and off the floor. Never in his career had he taken so many hard fouls or such arena-wide abuse on the road, where for three games he was booed each time he touched the ball, until the fans at the Verizon Center were finally broken in Friday's second half.
Yet he never totally lost his cool. He had some stare-downs, and he had some technical fouls, but he never let the talk and the rap songs get into his head. And he never let his teammates get sidetracked, either.
James averaged 29.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.3 steals in the series. He had 46 assists versus just 17 turnovers. In the final two games, he even cured his free-throw woes, making 25-of-28, including 10-of-10 in Game 6.
When it was all over, when he could've been beating his chest after all the talking and the hard fouls and the jeers, he said he felt happiest for teammate Joe Smith, who advanced to the second round for the first time in his 13-year career.
"When he got to the league, I was like 9 years old and I had just started playing basketball," James said.
Ultimately, in a series in which the tone was set by trash talk and rap music, James decided to let his on-court performance do most of the talking.
"It was a gruesome series. There were a lot of things going on in this series besides basketball and it was fun," James said. "Cleveland is advancing. That speaks louder than me saying anything."
Brian Windhorst covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal.