The Cavaliers-Wizards series is turning into a problem of who doesn't have an answer for whom.
In Game 1, the Wizards didn't have an answer for LeBron James. In Game 2, the Cavs didn't have an answer for Washington's outside shooting and stiff interior defense.
In Game 3, the Wizards were back to not having an answer for LeBron, and the Cavs got the road win they so desperately needed in the aftermath of their Game 2 loss at home. Cleveland now leads the series 2-1 and is assured of coming home for Game 5 with nothing worse than a series tie. Game 4 is tomorrow night.
In winning 97-96, LeBron reached double digits in points only, his first single-double of the series. His 41 points made him the Cavs' all-time leading scorer in a playoff game, eclipsing Brad Daugherty's 40 from 1993.
And the Cavs needed every one of LeBron's points.
After leading for a grand total of 55 seconds prior, the Cavs managed a 95-93 lead with less than 30 seconds to play. On the ensuing possession, Gilbert Arenas found a seam and penetrated full-bore. Caught between mauling Arenas or backing off and letting him tie the game, LeBron gave Arenas a mild hack, allowing him the bucket and the foul.
Arenas converted the free throw, giving the Wizards a 96-95 lead with 23 second left.
We probably thought we knew what was coming next. LeBron would get the ball, dribble the clock down to seven or eight seconds, drive in to the lane, suck in the defense, and kick the ball out to a waiting Donyell Marshall or Larry Hughes for a game-deciding jumper.
But LeBron, who is usually great at feeling out a game situation as it develops, decided the time was right to keep the ball as the clock hurtled toward zero.
He shed Jared Jeffries on the perimeter with a couple of juke steps, sprinted into the paint and took the full impact of the Washington defense head-on.
LeBron jump-stopped, pumped, stepped, nearly lost the ball, and forced up a muscle-on-muscle shot that hit the glass and floated through the net with less than six seconds remaining.
Players like Allen Iverson and Dwyane Wade have hit similar shots with their quickness, but they have to strike rapidly and not allow the defense time to get on top of them.
LeBron is on the (very) short list of players who can blaze into the lane, stop to adjust, and still have the strength to power through the defense one it collapses on him. That's what he did to win Friday's game.
The time remaining after LeBron's shot allowed Arenas time to get a clean look at a would-be game-winning three pointer. But much like Kobe Bryant's buzzer-beater attempt that fell short against Cleveland in March, Arenas' shot was more of a Hail Mary than anything. It rimmed out, and Anderson Varejao corralled the ball as the clock ran out.
The win stabilizes what had been a listing ship for the Cavs after Game 2. It took homecourt advantage back from the Wizards.
Perhaps most importantly, the Cavs prevailed in a razor-close playoff game on the road, a game in which they trailed by eight points at halftime, a game in which they played far from perfect basketball.
Hopefully, the Cavs showed themselves that they are capable of squeezing out tough road wins in the playoffs. That would be another major stepping stone for the team, and for LeBron.