CLEVELAND - Flat on his back, LeBron James grimaced as he looked toward the arena rafters, where giant banners spelled out his team's playoff motto: “RISE UP!”
And he did.
Ignoring a sprained left ankle, James stayed in the game to score 23 points and Larry Hughes added 27 Sunday, lifting the Cleveland Cavaliers over the depleted Washington Wizards 97-82 in the opener of this Eastern Conference series.
James turned his ankle on a drive in the third quarter but refused to come out, adding nine rebounds and seven assists in 44 minutes.
“I had no intention of not coming back,” he said. “First game of the playoffs, we've got to set a tone. If I was able to limp on it, I was going to be in there.”
The Cavaliers were expected to blow through their second straight first-round matchup with the undermanned Wizards, missing All-Stars Gilbert Arenas (knee surgery) and Caron Butler (broken hand).
However, Game 1 was no walk in the park for the Cavs on a beautiful, sunny spring day in Cleveland.
Antawn Jamison scored 28 points with 14 rebounds and Jarvis Hayes had 18 points for Washington, which was still within 10 points with more than seven minutes remaining.
That's when the Cavaliers, much more playoff savvy than they were a year ago, moved their attack inside and pounded the ball to 7-foot-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He scored seven straight points to help Cleveland push its lead to 89-74 with five minutes left.
Ilgauskas, bothered by a sore ankle when the Cavs beat the Wizards in a six-game series a year ago, scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth period.
“When the big fella is feeling good and he wants it, you have to give it to him,” James said.
Cleveland also clamped down on the Wizards in the fourth, holding them to 5-of-20 shooting and making Jamison go 1-of-7 for only three points in the last 16 minutes.
“We missed some open shots,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “I thought we executed well enough. It was a game. Their defense was good, but we've got to finish the plays.”
James appeared as if his second postseason as a pro might be in jeopardy when he crumpled to the floor with 8:03 left in the third.
On a drive, James rose for a floater from about 10 feet. As the ball dropped in, James came down on Etan Thomas' right foot, twisting his ankle and falling in obvious pain.
The injury looked severe and the fired-up Cleveland crowd moaned when James began slapping his hand on the floor. But after about a minute, James popped up and walked to the bench with hardly a limp.