They couldn't without him.
Up by 29 points in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers blew most of their big lead against Detroit's reserves and James had to go back in and restore order as Cleveland held on for a 94-82 victory on Tuesday night to take a 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference playoff series.
For three quarters, the Cavs were at their basketball best.
"It was beautiful," Mo Williams said.
The fourth wasn't so pleasing, but James isn't going to complain.
"The first seven quarters of Game 1 and Game 2 were tremendous basketball," he said. "We're not going to let tonight's fourth quarter take away from what we've done so far."
James, showing no regard for a defensive plan Detroit spent three days preparing for him, scored 29 and Williams added 21 as the Cavaliers withstood a stirring comeback by the Pistons, who used a 27-5 run to close within seven on Antonio McDyess' jumper with 3:51 left.
"We lost our focus," Williams said. "We all knew it. But it's nothing to get overly concerned about. I don't think it will happen again."
Delonte West scored 20 and Zydrunas Ilgauskas 12 for the top-seeded Cavs, who led 79-50 in the first minute of the fourth and were embarrassing the Pistons. But Detroit dug down and gave Cleveland and its raucous crowd a scare the Cavs may never forget.
"We let it slip away from us," Cleveland guard Daniel Gibson said. "But we got it back."
James added 13 rebounds, six assists and an unforgettable, wind-mill dunk before pulling on his warmups and sitting the first 4:45 of the fourth quarter.
But as Cleveland's star was resting up for Game 3 on Friday night at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., the Pistons, showing more fight than they had in two games, closed within 14 and forced Cavs coach Mike Brown to put James and Cleveland's other starters back in.
"Nothing we're doing now is working," McDyess said. "We basically have to play a perfect game just to be on top."
Despite the win, the Cavaliers, who enjoyed a 43-16 advantage on free-throw attempts, aren't feeling so good. They got just one field goal from their bench and showed a late vulnerability.
"We're getting out of here with a sour taste in our mouths," Williams said.
Holding a steady 15-point lead in the third, the Cavs pushed it to 64-46 on a 3-pointer by Williams.
James, who scored 38 points in the opener, then got behind Detroit's defense for a breakaway dunk. As he approached the basket, James rose in the lane and circled the ball in front of him before rocking it through the rim. He strutted back on defense as 20,562 fans began to celebrate what appeared to be another Quicken Loans Arena rout.
But the Pistons' backups -- Will Bynum, Arron Afflalo, Amir Johnson, Jason Maxiell and Kwame Brown -- got Detroit back in it. They beat Cleveland's bench players to loose balls, and before long, a seemingly insurmountable lead by the Cavaliers was gone.
"Our bench played well," McDyess said. "As far as the starters, we didn't come out and do the job we were assigned to do. It's like they were doing anything they wanted on offense. We weren't giving no resistance to stop them or making it tough on them.
"The positive thing is we try to build from what the bench did in that fourth quarter. We [starters] didn't do anything."
Detroit's bench accounted for 30 of the team's 32 points in the fourth.
After McDyess' 19-foot jumper made it 84-77, James, West and Williams each made two free throws apiece to put Cleveland ahead 90-77.
James then grabbed a rebound, and in one motion fired a pass down the floor to Williams, whose layup officially ended the Pistons' rally.
"In the fourth quarter, we got comfortable, which we can not do," James said. "The biggest thing is we got the win, but we know we can not allow ourselves to not close out a game the right way."
Detroit coach Michael Curry wanted his team to be more aggressive with James. The plan was to run defenders at him on the perimeter to keep Cleveland's star from getting into the foul lane, where he destroyed Detroit in Game 1 with short jumpers, layups and easy baskets.
It worked, but only a little.
James took only two shots inside the paint in the first half, but he was able to draw fouls and finished with 16 points -- six on free throws -- as the Cavs opened a 46-32 lead following a ragged 24 minutes, which included pushing, shoving and three technical fouls.
The Pistons double-teamed James the moment he touched the ball as Hamilton and McDyess pinned him into the left corner. The Cavs built a 13-point lead in the second quarter with James on the bench when he and returned Detroit welcomed him back with a mugging in the lane as McDyess, Afflalo and Johnson all made contact with James, who took exception to Johnson raking him across the face.
Sticking to his routine before big games at home, James was the first player to arrive and was on the floor more than three hours before tip-off.
In front of only a few TV production crew members and a handful of arena workers, James worked with assistant coach Chris Jent and practiced an assortment of shots, moves and free throws he planned to use to counter whatever Detroit had in store.
"We were ready for anything," Williams said. "We've seen it all."
Now, they have.
- The Cavs have won six consecutive playoff games against the Pistons.
- Since the 2006 postseason, Cleveland is 17-1 when scoring at least 94 points.
- James finished second to Orlando's Dwight Howard in defensive player of the year voting, an almost sure sign that he will make the league's all-defensive first team. James' defense has improved each year, and this season he made it a priority, leading the Cavs with 137 steals and a career-high 93 blocks. "It's all about pride," James said. "It's whether you want to cover a guy or not."