Largely dormant through the first three quarters, LeBron James did just enough to help the Cleveland Cavaliers firm up their playoff picture.
James scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, including a critical 3-pointer, and the Cavaliers held on to beat the Milwaukee Bucks 104-99 on Wednesday night. With the win, the Cavs clinched the Central Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“To me, it means something,” James said of winning the division. “It should mean something to all of us. It’s not guaranteed every year with the tough competition in the NBA. We understand we have bigger goals than this, but along (those lines), you have accomplishments that you just can’t take for granted.”
Kyrie Irving scored 27 points, and Kevin Love added 16 points and 11 rebounds. James also had nine rebounds and eight assists.
With the game still in doubt, James hit a 3-pointer with 14.1 seconds left to help preserve the win — after spending most of the night taking a back seat to Irving and other teammates.
“Once I was able to create a little space, I just let it go,” James said. “I was able to drop it.”
Bucks coach Jason Kidd praised his team’s ability to hang with the Cavs but acknowledged that James’ 3 was decisive.
“He was going for the kill shot, and he delivered,” Kidd said. “That’s what MVP players do.”
Michael Carter-Williams scored 30 points for the Bucks, while Zaza Pachulia added 19 points and 10 rebounds. Milwaukee played without Giannis Antetokounmpo, although it wasn’t immediately clear why he sat out.
Kidd said before the game that Antetokounmpo wouldn’t start, saying only, “Just making a change.” Coming into Wednesday, Antetokounmpo had started 67 of the 77 games he played in this season. Kidd was evasive after the game.
“Coach’s decision,” Kidd said. “That’s what it says in the stats, right?”
Asked whether it was a health issue, Kidd said, “He’s breathing.”
Antetokounmpo said he wasn’t informed before the game that he wasn’t playing but didn’t say much else.
“It was a coach’s decision,” Antetokounmpo said. “I really respect it.”
Having given up a comfortable lead in the third quarter, the Cavaliers were leading by two with just more than six minutes remaining when James — with only 13 points at that point — went on a scoring spurt. James hit a driving layup on one possession, then soared for a put-back slam to give Cleveland a 92-86 lead with 5:25 left.
O.J. Mayo hit a 3-pointer for Milwaukee, but Iman Shumpert slammed back a miss by James and Love hit a layup for a 96-89 Cleveland lead.
Still, the Bucks had a chance until the end, cutting the Cavs’ lead to two on a driving layup by Mayo with 35.5 seconds left. James hit a 3-pointer with 14.1 seconds to go.
Carter-Williams responded with a driving layup to cut the lead back to three with 9.7 remaining. Irving hit a pair of free throws to put the game away.
“Even though we’re at the end of the season in pretty good position, we’re playing teams that are fighting for playoff spots,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “We knew we would be challenged. We knew it would be competitive. Milwaukee certainly gave a great fight. Fortunately we responded.”
Cavaliers: James had an acrobatic slam dunk early in the third quarter, on a long outlet pass by Irving. … The Cavaliers took a 52-44 lead into halftime after hitting three 3-pointers in the final two minutes of the first half, including a pair by Irving in the final minute.
Bucks: Carter-Williams took a sharp forearm to the face from Tristan Thompson on a rebound in the third quarter. After a review, officials called it a flagrant foul 1. … The Bucks honored recently retired Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig at the end of the first quarter. Selig, a Milwaukee native, received a warm round of applause.
After the Bucks released renderings of a proposed new arena and adjacent entertainment district in downtown Milwaukee earlier Wednesday, Kidd said the design matched his ambitions for the product on the floor.
“I think it’s great for the city, seeing the pictures of the design,” Kidd said. “It’s a beautiful building. We all know it takes money to build it. But I think it’s going to go hand in hand with the product, a beautiful building and we have some very talented players who will play inside of it.”
Asked about his team’s approach to the playoffs, Blatt said having to handle high expectations all season has provided good preparation.
“I think the whole year, people have sort of put the cart before the horse in terms of our team, and no one has allowed us the luxury of developing and progressing in a normal way,” he said. “I think we’ve faced that challenge.”
Cavaliers: Friday night vs. Boston.
Bucks: Friday night at New York.
SOURCE: The Associated Press