LeBron carries load

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CLEVELAND – LeBron James lifted the young boy, kissed his head and pulled the tiny child close. Cradling the 1-year-old in his rippling arms, Cleveland’s star carried his son off the court.

It was LeBron Jr.’s turn for a ride.

Daddy already gave one to the Cavaliers.

James scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and posted the second triple-double of his first visit to the NBA playoffs, leading Cleveland to an 86-77 win over Detroit on Saturday that cut the Pistons’ lead to 2-1 in their second-round series.

Getting his only rest at halftime, James finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and four steals for the Cavaliers, who played with more confidence than in Games 1 and 2 and ensured they will play at least two more games this season.

“Lo and behold he gets a triple-double in a second-round playoff game against possibly the best team in the league,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown, marveling at James’ latest feat. “I say it all the time – he’s special.”

Anderson Varejao, Cleveland’s mop-haired forward, added a career-high 16 points and Flip Murray, starting in place of Larry Hughes, had 13 for the Cavaliers, who went 11-of-15 from the floor (73 percent) and 9-of-9 from the line in the fourth.

Cleveland can even up the best-of-seven series at home in Game 4 on Monday.

“We knew we couldn’t lose Game 3 at home,” James said. “That would have dug us too big of a hole to get out of. We took care of home. But we don’t want to feel too good about ourselves about this. We just have to protect home.”

Rasheed Wallace warned the Cavaliers not to feel too giddy.

“They did what they were supposed to do,” he said. “We are still going to win this series. We’re not going to let one game discourage us.”

The Cavaliers won without Hughes, who was with his grieving family in St. Louis following the unexpected death of his 20-year-old brother, Justin.

Richard Hamilton scored 22 points, Chauncey Billups 20 and Ben Wallace had 13 rebounds for the Pistons, who shot only 39 percent from the floor after blistering the nets in opening a 2-0 lead.

Detroit also had 16 turnovers, twice as many as in Game 2.

“We turned the ball over too much, making plays that we don’t usually make,” Billups said. “We got into the tempo that we wanted it in. We knew they wanted to run. We kept them from that. And they guarded. They grinded. You’ve got to give them credit.”

Even if the Cavaliers don’t rally to dethrone the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions, James and his teammates have made their first visit to the postseason since 1998 a memorable one.

The 21-year-old James can take a bow for that, saving his best when it mattered most and carrying the Cavs down the stretch.

Stealing one of Hall of Famer George Gervin’s signature moves, James hit an 11-foot finger roll as the Cavaliers, who trailed by 10 points in the third, took their first lead of the fourth at 66-64.

Later, he drove for a layup to put Cleveland ahead 74-70 with 2:44 left. Coming out of a timeout, James grabbed Cavs guard Damon Jones near the scorer’s table and told him, “Let’s win a game. C’mon.”

Mavericks 104, Spurs 103

DALLAS – This time, it was the San Antonio Spurs who couldn’t make the play at the end. Just like that, their title defense could be in trouble.

Dirk Nowitzki scored 21 of his 27 points from the foul line, including a go-ahead pair with 7.9 seconds left, and the Mavs withstood two last-gasp chances after that to beat the Spurs 104-103 on Saturday night to take a 2-1 lead in their second-round series.

The fourth quarter provided the back-and-forth heavyweight bout expected from teams that won 63 and 60 games this season. For the first time in the series, and at the most crucial point thus far, both were at their best at the same time.

Until the very end, when San Antonio’s Robert Horry botched a handoff to Manu Ginobili, caroming the ball out of bounds across midcourt. Dallas’ Jerry Stackhouse went to the line with 2 seconds left, missed the first, then intentionally missed the second, hoping it would clang off the rim and time would run out.

But he missed the rim, giving the ball to San Antonio out of bounds for one last chance.

Brent Barry heaved the ball from in front of the Mavs bench to the lane, but Josh Howard was there to disrupt it, setting off a wild celebration. DeSagana Diop pulled his shirt almost over his head, then hugged a bouncing Devin Harris, who again was a spark plug in his second straight start.

After losing Game 2 by 22 points, the Spurs shook up their starting lineup and changed their defense. It didn’t help as they fell behind by 13 in the second quarter. Riding Tim Duncan, who scored a season-high 35 points but fouled out with 1:05 left, San Antonio took its first lead of the second half with 5:43 left.

Now the Spurs go into Game 4 on Monday night forced to do the one thing they haven’t done in the Duncan era – rally.

Since Duncan arrived, San Antonio has never won a series it trailed after three games. The last time the Spurs were behind this deep in the playoffs was the last one they lost, against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round two years ago.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich started Brent Barry over Ginobili, a move he had made for eight games last postseason. Perhaps more surprising was his decision to put defensive ace Bruce Bowen on Josh Howard, leaving Horry to guard Nowitzki.

Ginobili scored 24 points, four shy of his total over the first two games. He had 10 in the final quarter.

AP-ES-05-13-06 2327EDT

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