(The Sports Xchange) - LeBron James said it felt like playing three games in three nights, yet as the Cleveland Cavaliers have for most of the season, they passed the test.
James scored 31 points and passed for 12 assists, and J.R. Smith matched his season high with 27 points in the Cavs’ 112-103 victory against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.
Cleveland played a back-to-back that concluded with an overtime victory Friday night in Atlanta against the Hawks. The Cavs didn’t return home until after 3 a.m. Saturday, then had to be back at the arena for a Sunday afternoon tipoff against a Hornets team that entered in third place in the East.
In addition, the Cavaliers played without guard Kyrie Irving, who sat out due to a sprained right ankle.
“We’ve played against some really good teams that’s been hot as of late,” James said. “For us to even have the energy the way we played today and go out and execute the way we did, it’s exceptional basketball.”
The Cavs’ erratic play seems to be evening out at the right time. Cleveland won for the fourth time in five games, and it concludes the season with four of its remaining five opponents either fighting for playoff seeding or their playoff lives.
The Cavaliers (55-22) took control in the fourth quarter thanks to defensive breakdowns by the Hornets on three consecutive possessions. Cleveland led by 21 in the first half, but the Hornets had the deficit down to four in the fourth quarter before the defense unraveled.
Smith’s 3-pointer — one of his six on the day — cooled the Hornets’ momentum and extended the Cavs’ lead to 99-92. James followed with a basket off a cut to the rim, and Kevin Love made a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, and the lead was back to 104-94 before Hornets coach Steve Clifford could call a timeout to fix the defense.
“Game on the line, three straight blown coverages, all basic stuff,” Clifford said. “Gotta make those plays, gotta make it hard on them. Can’t make those mistakes. They’re so good that they’re going to make plays anyway. They’re going to score when there’s good defense and they play better offense. We can’t give up those blown coverages.”
The Hornets (44-32) lost for the second time in its past seven games and at least temporarily tumbled from third into a three-way tie for fourth in the muddled East.
Charlotte clinched a playoff berth without even playing Saturday night, for which Clifford congratulated his players at the morning shootaround. Now home-court advantage in the first round is the next goal, but the Hornets are in a tough stretch right now. They left Cleveland, the top team in the East, to fly to Toronto to play the second-best team.
“We looked at it a couple of weeks ago, and over the last 10 years, it’s made a significant difference in the first round,” Clifford said. “The percentage of teams that had home court win a lot more than those who don’t.”
The Cavs made 16 3-pointers Sunday, just shy of their season high of 18. Love, who had 25 points and nine rebounds, and Smith combined for 11 of them. Love has shown signs recently of pulling out of a shooting funk that plagued him since the All-Star break. He is shooting 45 percent from 3-point range over his past five games.
“I mentioned a week or two ago just picking my spots before we head into the (postseason),” Love said. “I feel like I’m doing that.”
Kemba Walker scored 29 points for the Hornets, including 15 in the third quarter. Marvin Williams scored 22 points, and Jeremy Lin added 14 off the bench.
“They’ve got so many guys who can make plays,” Williams said. “They have a lot of talent over there, so you really have to be solid with your assignments. We didn’t do a great job of doing that.”