CLEVELAND — It’s not often the Cavs are going to lead by one point after three periods, score 17 in the fourth and still win, but that’s what happened Friday at Quicken Loans Arena.
Led by a terrific defensive effort and a monster triple-double from LeBron James, Cleveland recorded its seventh straight victory, a hard-earned 100-99 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
The Hornets, who led 98-93 with 3:33 left, scored just one point the rest of the way and finished the fourth period 5-for-23 from the field, when guards Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb both went 1-for-5.
The Cavs (12-7) weren’t a whole lot better with a 6-for-17 effort — both teams went 0-for-8 on 3-pointers — but James (27 points, 16 rebounds, 13 assists) and a determined and focused defense were enough to beat the Hornets (8-10) for the eighth straight time.
“It’s always rewarding,” James said of winning with defense. “We had to do it that way all the way until there were zeroes on the clock.”
A game that featured 15 lead changes, 16 ties and bad free throw shooting by Charlotte (16-for-27) came down to the final buzzer.
With the Cavs up 100-99, James missed a 3-pointer and the Hornets rebounded with 11.1 seconds left.
The 6-foot-1 Walker, who was defended by the 6-8 James, forced a switch, but before he could go against slower-footed Kevin Love, James recovered and got back on him.
That forced Walker to give up the ball to Lamb, who missed a long 3-pointer contested by J.R. Smith. The rebound was batted out to Walker, who missed a 3-point heave at the buzzer.
“It was ugly tonight, but a win is a win,” said Love, who had 11 points and 13 rebounds while battling the bigger Dwight Howard (20 points, 13 boards). “We won’t look back at how it was done. We’ll take it and move on.”
The Hornets, whose offensive execution was horrible down the stretch, scored just 42 points and made only 3-of-14 3-pointers in the second half after putting up 57 points and making 8-of-15 threes in the first.
For the game, Charlotte shot .383 from the field, a season low for a Cavs opponent.
“We’ve been talking about being a better defensive team,” said Cleveland’s Dwyane Wade, who had 10 points off the bench. “We’ve been getting there. We understand it’s really going to help us win games.”
The Cavs also got 16 points from Smith, 13 from Kyle Korver and 12 from Jae Crowder, while 36-year-old Jose Calderon, the 35-year-old Wade, James, Crowder and Jeff Green took turns defending the explosive Walker, who had 15 points on 6-for-21 shooting.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams had 17 points apiece for the Hornets, who fell to 1-8 on the road, but Lamb was just 4-for-15 from the field as he and Walker combined to go 3-for-17 on 3-pointers.
“When you get into the big moments, the playoffs, you want to feel like you’ve been there before,” Wade said. “All the things we’re doing now are getting us prepared for that.”
James and Smith both hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter as the Cavs went 7-for-13 from behind the arc to take an 83-82 lead. The lead would have been bigger, but Cleveland got outrebounded by 14 over the middle two quarters.
Behind Green, Korver and Wade, the Cavs looked like they were starting to take control when they outscored Charlotte by five during the 5:08 James sat on the bench to start the second period, but they were unable to sustain and trailed 57-54 at halftime.
James had just six points before changing his shoes at halftime — “I wasn’t playing well,” he said of the switch — but he had eight assists and two buckets on the 11 field goals his team made in the first period, which ended with the Hornets up 28-27.
Cleveland never led by more than six points on the night, while Charlotte’s biggest lead was eight in the third period, making the victory an extremely rewarding one for the improving Cavs.
“We’re just sticking with our (defensive) game plan,” James said. “That’s what it’s been. We’re more consistent. We know what we’re going to do every possession.”