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NBA playoffs scores 2015: LeBron James rises to challenge in Cavaliers' overtime win

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An exhausted and hobbled LeBron James shined to bring the Cavaliers one win away from the NBA Finals in overtime Sunday.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After several trades, months of midseason chaos, multiple injuries to key players and a thrilling 114-111 overtime win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night, LeBron James somehow has the Cleveland Cavaliers just a game away from the NBA Finals.

The Cavs now lead the Eastern Conference Finals, 3-0, with a chance to complete the sweep of the No. 1 seed Tuesday at home. It's all because of James, who stepped up despite the absence of Kyrie Irving to deliver the superstar performance Cleveland needed to win.

Though LeBron started cold, missing his first 10 shots, and looked hobbled late, battling an apparent foot injury, he still recorded 37 points, 18 points and 13 assists in 47 minutes and hit the game-winning three-pointer with 36 seconds left in overtime. It was an effort for the ages that left James crumpled on the ground in exhaustion as time expired and his teammates celebrated.

lebron

Photo: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks battled throughout the game to keep their hopes alive, even after Al Horford was ejected late in the first half for elbowing Matthew Dellavedova above the shoulders. Losing an All-Star like that just two days after Kyle Korver's injury could have sunk Atlanta, but the shorthanded team rallied to nearly get the win.

The Hawks had chances, including open looks by Jeff Teague and Shelvin Mack at the end of regulation and overtime, respectively, but those looks didn't fall when the Hawks needed them. The team also made a crucial error when Mike Scott, who was playing heavy minutes in place of Horford, inexplicably allowed a loose ball to go out of bounds late in OT.

That set up James' final bucket of the night, which extended the lead to three. In the latest example of the LeBron Factor in this series, the Cavaliers had a superstar player to turn to in those big moments, while the Hawks did not.

Now Atlanta will have to dig deep with its back against the wall in an almost impossible situation. No team in NBA history has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series to win, and the team that eventually breaks the streak probably won't be facing one of the great players in the history of the game.

Even without Irving or Kevin Love, even after missing his first 10 shots, even with a nagging foot, LeBron was the difference. Again.

3 other things we learned

Was Horford's ejection the right call?

The turning point of Game 3 came late in the first half when Horford was ejected for throwing an elbow at Dellavedova. Referees ruled the play a flagrant two foul and ejected Horford, taking away Atlanta's hottest hand for the second half and overtime of a must-win game. Dellavedova received a technical foul on the play, and there was debate during the TNT broadcast as to whether Horford's punishment was excessive.

The NBA announced afterwards that Horford was ejected for "an unnecessary and excessive forearm/elbow" that made contact with Dellavedova above the shoulders, earning him the flagrant two and automatic ejection. The NBA made a strong statement in favor of the referees' handling of the situation by commenting just minutes after the call was made, something that the league doesn't always do with controversial calls during games. Even if Dellavedova initiated contact, throwing an elbow around someone else's head like that is a bad idea.

Is Dellavedova earning a reputation for dirty plays?

This isn't the first time that Dellavedova has been involved in a controversial on-court incident recently. A subtle leg lock by Dellavedova led to Taj Gibson kicking him and getting ejected during a game between the Cavaliers and Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Dellavedova was also involved in the play that knocked Kyle Korver out for the remainder of the playoffs two days ago.

Dellavedova's opponents have apparently noticed a trend. DeMarre Carroll said this after Game 3:

"I really didn't see too much, but then I looked at the replay. I just seen Dellavedova diving. You know, he did it to Kyle. He's one of our starters and he gotta have surgery, he's out 4-6 months. And he did it to Al. I think Al said, 'Enough of this.' And he did what he did.

I think he's just competitive, man. Sometimes when you compete so hard, you can take it overboard. so there's gotta be a fine line between competing and being crazy. You know, Al just did what he thought was necessary to protect our team and make a stand. And he got threw out.

In the game of basketball, it's OK to dive for like a loose ball, but when you dive at people's feet, nothing but bad things are going to happen."

Horford also called out Dellavedova's play.

"We're out there competing," he said. "But he's gotta learn, I mean he's only been in this league for a couple of years or whatever, but he's gotta learn that at the end of the day it's a big brotherhood here. Guys look out for each other and, I don't think that it was malicious, but he's gotta learn."

Dellavedova, meanwhile, didn't agree with the idea that he has a track record, saying after the game, "I would disagree with that. I was boxing him out ... he was pulling my left arm down." Who knows if the Hawks plan to retaliate after Horford went after Dellavedova on Sunday night, but if this series is any indication, his name is starting to get around.

Have the Hawks peaked?

This was a game that Atlanta absolutely needed to take. Even ignoring the brutal reality of a 3-0 hole in the NBA playoffs, the Hawks had a clear shot with Irving sidelined and James struggling early on. However, the Hawks couldn't put together a lead big enough to provide any real comfort, and eventually James caught fire.

While Teague and Paul Millsap helped keep the team in the mix until the end, it says a good deal about this matchup that Atlanta couldn't take one of the first three games of the series. Cleveland hasn't been like Golden State -- the Cavaliers have been vulnerable, especially without Irving -- and yet Atlanta hasn't been able to put it together in crunch time. Now the Hawks will likely be remembered for this downfall unless they can pull off the impossible, which is a real shame given what this team accomplished with the talent on hand.

A record-breaking win streak, four All-Stars, 60 wins, a No. 1 seed, a trip to the conference finals ... even if this was the Hawks' peak, it's still impressive.

Play of the Night

Say it with me now: LeBron James is clutch. So clutch.

3 fun things

The Cavaliers accidentally got a little too rough during pregame.

What makes an acrobatic balancing halftime act cooler? A chihuahua.

Al Horford's sister DID NOT like the call on his ejection.

Final scores

Cavaliers 114, Hawks 111 (Fear The Sword recap | Peachtree Hoops recap | SB Nation recap)