AUBURN HILLS, Mich., May 17 (Ticker) -- LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers played with a purpose normally reserved for the Detroit Pistons.

James found Drew Gooden for the go-ahead layup with 27 seconds left as the Cavaliers met an enormous challenge and moved to the threshold of the Eastern Conference Finals with an 86-84 victory over the surprisingly passive Pistons.

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James added to his brief but rapidly growing postseason resume with 32 points for the fourth-seeded Cavaliers, who beat the top-seeded Pistons for the third straight time - all without starting guard Larry Hughes - to take a stunning 3-2 series lead.

"They aren't the Big Bad Wolf, and we aren't the Three Little Pigs," James said. "We're all grown men, and we know we can beat them."

In the playoffs for the first time in eight years and led by the 21-year-old James, the Cavaliers showed determination and focus. They never trailed in the second half and answered every charge by the Pistons, who were 47-4 at home this season.

"At any point in the fourth quarter, we could have collapsed," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "But these guys just kept fighting. We have a bunker mentality, and that's been huge against this team in this building."

Meanwhile, the Pistons seemed more concerned with arguing with referees and straying from their style. In the fourth quarter, Rasheed Wallace and coach Flip Saunders were hit with technical fouls and floor leader Chauncey Billups fouled out.

"You saw those calls," Wallace said. "Every time we got close, there seemed to be some (stuff). That leads me to think some other things, but I'm not going to say what those things are."

Right down to the final whistle, Detroit seemed to be looking for a call. Along the baseline, Richard Hamilton drew slight contact, leaning out of bounds and letting go of the ball as time expired.

Detroit has lost three straight games for the first time this season.

"We were definitely tight tonight," Detroit forward Tayshaun Prince said. "I didn't think we were in the two games in Cleveland; they just made plays to beat us. But we were tonight. We weren't communicating at the worst times."

The Cavaliers can win the series at home Friday. Wallace, whose guarantees of a win in Game 4 and the series have been hollow, claims the Pistons aren't worried.

"We've been here in the last couple years," he said. "We've already been down the road they are trying to travel. It's a race to four, and they only have three."

A layup by Antonio McDyess - who came on for Wallace at the 10:26 mark and scored all 11 of his points thereafter - pulled the Pistons into an 84-84 tie with 1:20 to go.

James missed a runner and Ben Wallace drew a foul with 40 seconds left. With a chance to give Detroit the lead, he missed both shots, completing an 0-of-7 showing at the line.

On the ensuing possession, James was double-teamed at the arc, took a pair of dribbles inside the circle and zipped a pass underneath to Gooden, who muscled his way for the go-ahead layup.

"I was just trying to be patient," James said. "Ben Wallace popped out on me, and they had some kind of miscue, and Drew got open on the baseline. I just wanted to wait to make sure the ball didn't get tipped out of bounds."

Detroit had a number of chances to tie, but Prince had a runner swatted by Donyell Marshall and Lindsey Hunter - who came on for Billups - missed a jumper.

"We had the shot we wanted," Prince said. "I just didn't get the lift I normally do - I don't know if someone stepped on my foot or if I just didn't plant right."

Cleveland's Eric Snow grabbed the rebound and passed the ball into an empty backcourt, where Hunter tracked it down and called timeout with 1.9 seconds left, setting up Hamilton's flop.

Marshall had 14 points and 13 rebounds and Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 14 and 10 before fouling out for the Cavaliers, who shot just 38 percent (31-of-81) from the field but blocked 10 shots. Hughes again was not with the team due to the death of his brother.

"This is all about Larry," James said. "His strength and spirit are really helping us."

Prince scored 21 points, Billups added 17 and Hamilton 15 for the Pistons, who shot 43 percent (32-of-75) but committed 17 turnovers.

"We need to take a look at our turnovers, because we've been the best in the league and that's not happening right now," Saunders said.

Cleveland made just 7-of-21 shots in the first quarter but was even at 20-20 thanks to six blocks, including four by Ilgauskas. James really got going in the second period with 12 points as the Cavaliers opened a 50-45 halftime lead.

A 3-pointer by James gave Cleveland its largest lead at 63-53 with 5:22 left in the third quarter before Detroit finally started showing some concern, responding with a 13-3 surge that tied the game.

Murray closed the quarter with a jumper, and the Cavs never trailed again, although the Pistons tied it three times.

A driving lefthanded layup by James snapped a 77-77 tie with 4:02 to go. After two free throws by Prince, James found Damon Jones for a 3-pointer at the 3:27 mark.