CLEVELAND (AP) – LeBron James acknowledged the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t play their best Wednesday night, but he was at his best when it mattered most.
James scored 24 points, including seven down the stretch, and Cleveland held off the short-handed New York Knicks 91-84.
The four-time NBA MVP used a profanity to describe the way his team played during an in-house interview following the game, drawing laughs from the sellout crowd of 20,562.
James took over but thought Cleveland’s defense was the big reason the Cavs were finally able to subdue the Knicks, who nearly pulled out a surprising win even though star Carmelo Anthony sat out with a sprained right ankle.
The Knicks were 1 of 7 with two turnovers after taking an 82-80 lead with 4:07 remaining on Langston Galloway’s jumper.
“We preach offensively it’s not always going to be pretty,” James said. “Tonight we needed the defensive end. We just got stops.”
James’ layup off a turnover gave the Cavs the lead for good at 84-82 with 3:15 remaining. The basket came after the Knicks threw away an inbounds pass following a timeout as the shot clock was winding down.
Matthew Dellavedova dribbled into the frontcourt and found James streaking to the basket.
“I’m a big believer in the ball finds energy,” James said. “Once I saw the errant pass on their part I just got on my horse. I know Delly is going to find me, but he wouldn’t have found me if I didn’t have the energy behind it.”
James added two free throws and then soared to the basket for a powerful dunk as Cleveland took control.
Kevin Love added 23 points with 13 rebounds for the Cavs.
“They’re a very experienced team and they’re not fearful in any moment,” Knicks coach Derek Fisher said. “That’s what you strive for as a group. An experienced team like Cleveland is obviously better down the stretch.”
The Cavaliers, who visit Golden State on Friday in a rematch of last season’s NBA Finals, have the best record in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland, plagued by injuries all season, played with a full roster for the first time.
Rookie forward Kristaps Porzingis had 23 points with 12 rebounds for New York, but didn’t score in the fourth quarter.
Anthony, averaging 21.8 points in 28 games, was injured during Monday night’s loss to Orlando. Fisher expects the eight-time All-Star to play Saturday.
Cleveland built an 11-point lead in the second quarter, but Porzingis’ 3-pointer at the buzzer cut it to 55-50. New York tied the game late in the third, and the score was 72-all going into the fourth.
Arron Afflalo scored 16 for the Knicks.
Tristan Thompson had 10 points and 14 rebounds for the Cavaliers.
Kyrie Irving returned to the court to work on his shooting for about 30 minutes following the game. He scored five points, shooting 1 of 7 from the field, in 19 minutes. Irving had 12 points Sunday in his first game since breaking his left kneecap in Game 1 of the Finals last season.
Tempers were short the night before Christmas Eve. James received a technical in the second quarter, which came shortly after he thought he had been fouled on consecutive drives to the basket.
Thompson and Lou Amundson were given double technicals, and Robin Lopez was hit with a technical after he thought he was fouled.
The Knicks were called for defensive 3 seconds twice and both teams were given delay-of-game warnings after timeouts.
Knicks: Anthony missed his second game this season. He didn’t play Nov. 29 because of strep throat. … Lance Thomas started in place of Anthony, scoring eight points in 34 minutes. … Porzingis blocked James’ shot as the four-time MVP drove to the basket in the second quarter.
Cavaliers: Point guard Mo Williams returned after missing two games with a sprained right thumb, finally giving coach David Blatt a full complement of players. He used 10 in the first quarter.
Knicks: Visit Atlanta on Saturday.
Cavaliers: Visit Golden State on Friday.
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