CLEVELAND — It came down to an Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High graduate against a former Fighting Irish player.
With the Cavaliers clinging to a two-point lead against lowly Sacramento, LeBron James took a baseline inbounds pass and buried a step-back 3-pointer from the right wing over JaKarr Sampson’s 7-foot wingspan to propel Cleveland to its franchise-record-tying 13th straight win, a 101-95 victory over the Kings on Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena.
“Big brother always gets the last laugh,” joked James, who finished with 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting (5-for-8 3-pointers), 11 rebounds, nine assists and seven turnovers.
The Cavs trailed 95-93 after a tip-in by Sampson (six points, 16 rebounds) with 3:18 left, but Sacramento didn’t score again as Cleveland closed on an 8-0 run.
“LeBron is one of the best players in the league, so you just have to make everything tough on him,” Sampson said. “That’s what I tried to do tonight, but we came up short.”
Two free throws by Jeff Green (17 points) tied the game, and a swooping layup by James put the Cavs up two with 1:35 to go.
Cleveland then forced a 24-second violation, but J.R. Smith missed a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left that would have given James his 58th career triple-double.
Green, however, batted the rebound back out and the Cavs had possession under their basket with 20.5 seconds left in the game and five seconds on the shot clock. Following a timeout, the 6-foot-8 James scored over the 6-9 Sampson with 15.8 ticks on the clock.
“I wanted the ball in my hands at all costs,” James said. “I feel like this is my time. My teammates believe in me making plays.”
The game-clincher came on a play called “Chicago,” which got its name from a game-winning 23-footer James made against the Bulls in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals.
“We were going to run a different play, but LeBron said, ‘I want Chicago,’” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “I said, ‘OK.’
“He’s been making that shot a lot this year — very confident in it. He’s brought us home with a lot of those shots.”
Not to be overlooked, the Cavs got three 3-pointers from Kyle Korver (15 points) — James called him “Fourth Korver” — in the first 1:23 of the final period to turn a 78-73 deficit into an 82-79 lead.
Kevin Love added 18 points and 13 boards, but it was James who saved the Cavs (18-7) from what would have been an ugly loss to the Kings (7-17), who got 18 points, 10 boards and six assists from Zach Randolph, 17 points off the bench from Buddy Hield and 15 from reserve Frank Mason.
“LeBron is taking over right now,” Korver said. “We’re glad to give him the ball and watch the show.”
The Cavs committed two turnovers and Smith was called for a technical in the first 40 seconds of the second half as Cleveland fell behind by 14, but a chirping James hit back-to-back 3-pointers from well behind the line and threw down a dunk to make it a one-point game with 1:53 left in the period.
The Kings, though, scored the last four points of the quarter to take a 78-73 lead into the fourth.
“It was a tough game,” Lue said. “You have some of these through a long year. We just had to grind it out.”
With James 0-for-2 from the field at the 7:42 mark of the first half and owning just one hoop with 4:24 left, the Kings scored 35 points on 14-for-21 shooting in the second period to take a 57-48 lead at intermission.
James had nine points in a 67-second span as the Cavs quickly cut a seven-point deficit to one, but Sacramento regrouped behind Randolph and Hield to go up nine at the break.
Cleveland bounced back to hold the Kings to 38 points in the second half, causing Love to say, “Anything would have been better than the first half.”
The first quarter, which ended with the Kings leading 22-19, could have cured insomnia. Love had eight points and six rebounds for the Cavs, but the rest of the team had 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting and five boards. Sacramento led despite shooting 10-for-27 from the field and 2-for-11 on 3-pointers.
James, who wore three different pair of tennis shoes during the game, came alive with 20 points in the second half, meaning the Cavs will have a chance to set a franchise record with their 14th straight win Friday in Indiana.
“He’s amazing,” Korver said. “He’s just demanding the ball. He’s like, ‘Give me the ball. We’re about to win.’ “