ATLANTA -- LeBron James dribbled at the top of the key with the clock winding down, then made his move. What happened next was a matter of debate.
Al Horford thought he played good defense. The officials decided otherwise.
After the call went his way, James stepped to the line and made one free throw with 1.6 seconds remaining, just enough to give the Cavaliers their seventh win in eight games, 88-87 over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night.
The Hawks, after rallying from a 13-point deficit, squandered a five-point lead in the final 1:42. Delonte West hit a jumper, Mo Williams sank a 3-pointer and James won it for the Cavaliers on their final possession. Driving from the top of the key, he threw up a shot that missed but Horford, standing in the lane with his arms up, was called for the foul.
"It was unfortunate the way the game ended," Horford said, choosing his words carefully. "He came to me. I kept my arms straight. The refs felt it was a foul."
James missed the first free throw but swished the second. The Hawks still had a chance after a timeout, but Joe Johnson's jumper over James clanked off the rim as the horn sounded.
The Cavaliers (46-12) moved a half-game ahead of Boston for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and eclipsed their win total from last season. Atlanta hurt its bid to maintain the fourth seed in the East, which would guarantee home-court advantage in the opening round.
"It's one of the better wins we've had," James said. "On the road, it means a lot more against a playoff team."
Down the stretch, it was James vs. Johnson at both ends of the court.
"I was going one-on-one. I had to take the challenge," said James, who called the closing minutes "some of the best basketball we've played all season."
Johnson led the Hawks with 21 points, but he missed his final two shots -- including the potential game-winner.
"I had a good look," he said. "It felt great when it left my hand. I thought it was definitely going in, but not quite."
James ran at Johnson with a hand extended -- failing to get a piece of the ball but, as James put it, making "him shoot it a little bit different."
Triple-teamed at times, James made 8 of 20 from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, and dished out 11 assists.
The teams met on a day that should have made Cleveland feel right at home -- a freak March storm left downtown Atlanta with a light blanket of snow.
As always, the celebrities turned out for King James. Bill Murray, in Georgia filming a movie, sat courtside along with director Spike Lee, who was trying to sell Murray on another project while they both took in the game.
The Cavaliers led 62-49 about 5 minutes into the third, but the Hawks closed the quarter on a 21-7 run. Johnson, Zaza Pachulia and Flip Murray scored five points each to lead the spurt.
On its final possession of the quarter, Murray gave the home team its first lead since 2-0. Isolated with Daniel Gibson, the Hawks guard drove into the lane and hit the jumper while drawing a foul. Even though he missed the free throw, the Hawks led 68-67 going into the fourth.
James' best move came in the first half. He stepped back on Johnson, then suddenly blew by him to the right and made the shot despite being fouled by Josh Smith.
Smith dazzled the crowd, too. He blocked Williams' shot at one end, took off down the court and dunked off a miss by Joe Johnson. But Smith was mysteriously on the bench down the stretch as coach Mike Woodson chose to go with Pachulia.
Williams had 20 points for Cleveland, while Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. The Hawks had five players in double figures, including Murray and Marvin Williams with 14 apiece.
- The Cavaliers improved to 2-1 in the season series with the Hawks, becoming the first to win on the road. The teams meet for the final time in the regular season at Cleveland on March 21.
- Both teams struggled at the foul line. The Hawks made 22 of 31 (71 percent), while the Cavaliers were even worse at 16 of 24 (67 percent).
- The crowd of 19,639 was the largest of the season and the eighth sellout at Philips Arena. There appeared to be only a few no-shows even with the weather.
- F Joe Smith could be returning to the Cavaliers after being granted his release by Oklahoma City. Cleveland is reportedly interested in pursuing him after losing Ben Wallace to a broken leg.
- The Hawks' scoring crew mistakenly gave West a personal foul on a technical in the first half. The mistake wasn't discovered until the break between the third and fourth quarters -- after Cleveland coach Mike Brown pulled West out for the final 2:51 of the third, believing he had four fouls. "Something like that, oh, it just can't happen," said Brown, adding the team might consider a protest.
- Cleveland reached 20 road wins in a season for the seventh time in franchise history.