CLEVELAND - LeBron James pulled his right arm tightly to his chest, unable to do anything but grimace as the final seconds expired on Cleveland’s series-clinching win.
The Bulls were finally out of the way.
But for the Cavaliers, moving on in the NBA playoffs wasn’t pain free.
James, playing despite an injured right elbow that went numb and forced him to shoot a free throw left-handed in the closing seconds, just missed a triple-double as the Cavs advanced to a playoff date with Boston by beating Chicago 96-94 in Game 5 on Tuesday night in perhaps Vinny Del Negro’s final game as Bulls coach.
James scored 19 points — 16 in the second half — and added 10 rebounds and nine assists as the Cavs finally saddled the stubborn Bulls to win the series 4-1. After making one free throw, James then hoisted and missed the second with his left with 7.8 seconds left and the Cavs only ahead by four.
James doesn’t know when he injured the elbow, which he said bothered him the entire second half. He revealed after the game that he underwent an MRI and X-rays two days ago.
“It bothers me because I don’t know what it is,” James said. “Hopefully it doesn’t continue to bother me. But I’m not concerned. Cleveland fans have nothing to worry about. They have no reason to panic. I don’t think it’s that serious.”
Antawn Jamison scored 25 points and Shaquille O’Neal 14 for Cleveland, which will face Boston, reuniting teams that don’t like each other and who played a testy seven-game series in 2008.
Game 1 is Saturday.
“A lot of people are saying they’re too old, but we know they’re going to come out and give us their best shot,” said Jamison, who was not with the Cavs the last time Cleveland met Boston in the postseason. “It’s going to be a hard-fought series. It should be fun.”
Derrick Rose scored 31 points and Luol Deng 26 for Chicago, which had several shots roll in and out in the final minutes.
Given little chance against the league’s top team during the regular season, the Bulls gave the top-seeded Cavaliers all they could handle.
Delonte West had 16 points and O’Neal racked up fouls during the second half against Chicago’s big men.
The Cavs were intent on closing out the series at home but they couldn’t shake the Bulls, who were trying to send the series back to Chicago for Game 6.
When Jamison buried a 3-pointer with 3:30 left, Cleveland was up 93-84, and for the first time all night Cavaliers fans finally started thinking about a matchup with the Celtics, who eliminated Miami earlier.
The Bulls, though, had other plans.
Deng hit a jumper and two free throws before Rose, who made Cleveland defenders look silly all series, made four straight from the line to pull the Bulls within 93-92 with 1:32 remaining. Two free throws by James then gave Cleveland a three-point lead with 1:11 left.
Rose then tried a short shot in the lane that went halfway down before spinning out.
Cleveland’s Mo Williams, who shot a dismal 2 for 13, then missed a baseline runner but the ball went out of bounds off Chicago’s Joakim Noah. The Bulls did get the ball back on a steal, but Rose forced up an awkward left-handed layup over Anderson Varejao that was short.
James grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made his first attempt to make it 96-92, but with his elbow causing him pain, he tried his second shot left-handed and it was way off the mark.
“I knew we were up four,” James said. “I would have shot it right-handed if I had to make it. I’ve never had problem with my elbow before.”
Down four, the Bulls got a layin by Deng just before the buzzer.
James, who wore a sleeve on his right arm for the second straight game, refused to address his injury before the game.
“I don’t know what is up with it, but I’m ready to play,” he said.
So were the Bulls, who fought until the end to prolong their season — and for Del Negro.
Chicago, which had to win down the stretch to earn the No. 8 seed, entered the playoffs amid controversy surrounding its coach. Del Negro reportedly got into a physical confrontation with vice president of basketball operations John Paxson last month, an incident the team downplayed but could have long-term effects.
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