With only a few ticks of the clock left, desperate times called for desperate measures.
"I was messing with LeBron before the play started," Butler said. "I told him, 'Miss this shot, make it interesting and let's take this thing back to D.C.'"
Seconds later, the Wizards were on their way home -- for Game 6.
Butler made a layup with 3.9 seconds left and the Wizards held their breath as James missed a potential series- and season-ending layup at the horn, giving Washington an 88-87 victory Wednesday night and adding at least one more game to this overheated NBA playoff series.
After Butler scored on a tough drive past James, the Cavs had one more chance, but their superstar couldn't get a banked runner to drop as the Wizards, who have had their past three seasons ended by Cleveland, pulled within 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Once off the floor, Butler ran down the hallway toward the Wizards' locker room. He pulled off his jersey and shouted: "D.C., stand up! D.C., stand up!" before joining his excited teammates.
Butler scored 32 points and DeShawn Stevenson had 17 for the Wizards, who played without guard Gilbert Arenas and got only eight points from the normally reliable Antawn Jamison. Arenas announced before the game that his season was over because of a bothersome knee. His absence figured to be the decisive blow for the Wizards, but they fought to the finish and, at least for now, prevented the Cavs from ending their season.
Butler made sure of it.
"He played it like it was his last game, which it could have been," Arenas said. "He showed leadership and poise out there. Great players make great moves and he did it tonight and he's on his way to stardom because he's doing it on a big stage."
Butler also stole a page from James.
In Game 6 two years ago at Washington, James approached Arenas at the foul line in the final seconds and warned him not to miss his free throws or the game was over. Arenas misfired on both attempts and the Cavaliers ended the series on a last-second jumper by Damon Jones.
This time, it was James who came up short.
"He told me to miss the shot so we would go back to D.C.," James said. "There it was."
James scored 34 points -- 24 in the second half -- but was unable to make the final shot in traffic that would have sent the Wizards, who began talking trash weeks ago and haven't stopped, quietly into the summer. The Cavaliers led by five with 1:47 left, but took bad shots down the stretch and allowed Washington to score the final six points and end a five-game playoff losing streak in Cleveland.
James, who has withstood body blows throughout the series, felt he was fouled on his final shot but didn't make excuses.
"I thought it was going to go in," he said. "It just didn't fall."
It's the second straight year that the Cavaliers were up 3-1 and failed to close out a team at home. Last postseason, Cleveland led New Jersey 3-1 but lost Game 5 at home before finally putting the Nets away on the road. The Cavs seemed to have learned from that lesson and were almost booked for the next round when Delonte West's three-point play put them up 87-82.
Butler then scored on a layup sandwiched between two missed 3-pointers by Cleveland, and Antonio Daniels hit two free throws to pull the Wizards within 87-86 with 43 seconds left. Cleveland's Joe Smith missed a short inside shot and Zydrunas Ilgauskas couldn't steer in a tip.
Following a timeout, the Wizards cleared the floor for Butler, who burst past James and got an arching layup, which threatened to dance out, fall through the rim.
Washington has been beaten by so many last-second shots from Cleveland in the playoffs, and as James drove past Stevenson to the basket on the Cavs' last possession, it looked as if the Wizards were going to go down in heartbreaking fashion again.
But James, who was bumped by Darius Songaila, didn't come through and Stevenson, whose running feud has been one of the subplots in a series as juicy as a daytime TV soap, ran to midcourt and celebrated the Wizards' good luck.
"We finally got a miss," said relieved Wizards coach Eddie Jordan.
This series has had it all: Trash talk, villains, heroes, rap stars and, of course, the Stevenson vs. James feud that seems personal and professional. And now, it will continue.
Arenas was casually sitting in a chair in Washington's locker room discussing a recent movie he had seen, when he stunningly announced his lost season was over. The three-time All-Star, who missed 66 regular-season games following knee surgery, played in the first four games in the series despite a painful deep bone bruise.
But he wasn't himself, and Arenas decided to start getting ready for next season a little early.
His teammates had other plans.
On Tuesday, the Wizards were visited by Abe Pollin, their 84-year-old owner who talked to them about past playoff successes and failures. Pollin spoke of times when Washington has overcome 3-1 deficits, and the Wizards have a chance to do it again.
"It was very, very good for us," Stevenson said of the meeting with the ailing Pollin, the league's senior owner. "He told us to win a game for him, and that's what we did."
As if on cue, the Wizards and Cavaliers were at each other's throats early.
With 3:20 left in the first quarter, James was fouled on a baseline drive by Songaila, whose left forearm caught James on the chin. Songaila was assessed a technical foul for the latest rough foul of the series.
James refused to comment on the play, perhaps not wanting to give the Wizards any more motivation than they already have.
Following Game 4, James said he didn't think the Wizards could come back.
He hasn't changed his mind.
"We're still up 3-2," he said.
Only eight of 174 teams have overcome 3-1 deficits to win. ... James added 10 rebounds and seven assists, becoming the first player to score at least 34 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists in two straight playoff games since Larry Bird in 1984. ... Cavs forward Sasha Pavlovic, sidelined since April 16 with a sprained left ankle, was active but didn't play. Arenas sat on the bench in street clothes, cheering on every miss and make by his teammates.