CLEVELAND — Crown them one and all, the kid called King and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
For the first time, they’re Eastern Conference champions, and on their way to the NBA finals.
Lugging an entire region’s hopes with him on every trip to the basket, LeBron James had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and unflappable rookie Daniel Gibson added 31 points, 19 in the fourth quarter, to give the Cavaliers a 98-82 victory in Game 6 against the Detroit Pistons.
Cleveland, a city that hasn’t celebrated a world championship since 1964, has the next closest thing. And now the Cavs, who won just 17 games the year before James arrived from just down the Interstate in Akron, will meet the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the finals on Thursday night.
James, who scored 48 points in Cleveland’s double-overtime win in Game 5, didn’t have to carry the Cavs by himself.
Gibson gave him all the help he needed.
The slender second-round pick from Texas, who didn’t become a major contributor until March, outshined his superstar teammate. Gibson made three 3-pointers in the first 2:16 of the fourth and drilled another long-range jumper with 6:52 left, setting off a celebration in Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavaliers are only third team to come back from an 0-2 deficit in a conference finals, joining the 1971 Baltimore Bullets and 1993 Chicago Bulls.
The season couldn’t have ended worse for the top-seeded Pistons, making their fifth straight appearance in the conference finals.
Rasheed Wallace fouled out and then got thrown out after being slapped with two technicals by referee Eddie Rush with 7:44 to play. Rip Hamilton, too, fouled out after scoring 29 points.
The loss could signal an end of an era for the Pistons, with Chauncey Billups (9 points) and Chris Webber (13) both bound for free agency.
As the final seconds ticked away, James flung the ball into the crowd and jumped into the arms of center Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the Q quaked. The moment had to be particularly sweet for Ilgauskas, the club’s 7-foot-3 center who was drafted by the franchise in 1996 and spent two seasons on the sideline with major foot injuries.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to me, man,” James said.
20,562 delirious fans. “But look here, look here. It doesn’t stop.”
Moments later, James was handed the Eastern Conference trophy by Hall of Famer Bill Russell, who had advice for the 22-year-old.
“You are representing the Eastern Conference,” the Boston Celtics great said. “Make me proud.”
Gibson, the hero of Game 4 when he scored a season-high 21, drained a pair of 3-pointers in the first 1:14 of the fourth quarter, giving the Cavs a 73-67 lead and forcing the Pistons to call time.
“Boobie is a guy with a lot of poise and a lot of heart,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said of Gibson during the trophy presentation. “He’s a scorer and a shooter. You leave him alone you better watch out, because it’s Boobie for 3.”
A lengthy delay at the start of the second quarter because of a scoreboard malfunction drained most of the energy from the frenzied crowd and prevented the Cavaliers from adding to their six-point lead.
Annoyed by the delay, James scored nine points, all free throws, in the first half. Officially, he tried just two shots from the field in the first 24 minutes but was fouled on several drives to the basket and got to the line 11 times.
Just as he did before Game 3, James arrived at the arena more than 3 1/2 hours before tipoff to get in some extra shooting practice. Wearing one of his popular “Witness” T-shirts, he worked on 3-pointers, free throws and his post-up moves, backing down imaginary Pistons for easy inside baskets.
James ended his workout by throwing in an underhanded shot from the top of the key.
“Let’s end it on that one,” he told assistant coach Melvin Hunt.
Powerless to stop him in Game 5 on their home court, the Pistons were determined not to allow James to score as he did. They were as loose as always in the locker room before the game, as Wallace blasted some Snoop Doog from a portable stereo and several of his teammates bobbed to the beat.
Following the morning shootaround, Billups declared that Detroit’s defense would not allow James an encore of his 48-point masterpiece.
“No, that won’t happen again,” Billups warned. “I won’t say the kid can’t get 40, you know what I’m saying? But he won’t get the 40 like that again. No, no, trust me. Not like that. If he can get 40 with fadeaways and all that, then tip your hat. He won’t get that kind of 40 again.”
He didn’t have to, as his less-heralded teammates stepped up and made sure their wouldn’t have to go back to Auburn Hills, Mich., where they lost Game 7 in the conference semifinals last year.
After scoring 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 in Game 5, James came out looking to get his teammates involved. He took only one shot in the first quarter but finished with five rebounds and five assists as the Cavaliers took a 27-21 lead into the second.
Because the scoreboard, 24-second shot clock and game clock were not operating in the second quarter, Cavaliers public-address announcer Olivier Sedra counted down in five-second intervals from 10 during each possession so the teams knew how much time they had left to shoot.