LeBron James came back just in time to make sure the New Jersey Nets couldn't.

James returned from a long stint on the bench to score 23 points, and the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 15 years by beating the Nets, 88-72, last night.

Cleveland won the series, 4-2, and heads to Detroit on Monday night for its third appearance in a conference finals and the first since 1992. James, who had eight rebounds and eight assists, needed only 4 years to get the Cavs into the NBA's final four.

He got plenty of help in the clincher from reserves Donyell Marshall and Daniel Gibson, and the Cavs needed it because James spent most of the third quarter on the bench in foul trouble and Cleveland managed just eight points. New Jersey cut what had been a 22-point deficit to one, but with James back for the fourth quarter, the Nets never could take the lead.

James was asked what he thought as the Nets got within one point. "Would the third quarter please end so I could get back in the game?" he said.

Marshall scored 18 points and Gibson had eight. They had combined for 26 points total in the first five games of the series.

Jason Kidd had 19 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists for the Nets, who stayed alive with a victory at Cleveland in Game 5.

Richard Jefferson scored 16 points and Mikki Moore added 14, but leading scorer Vince Carter had only 11 and heard boos in what could have been his last game for the Nets. He can become a free agent this summer.

Kidd triggered a 14-2 run to end the third quarter. The Nets outscored the Cavs, 22-8, in the quarter - Cleveland just missed the worst third quarter in NBA playoff history - and closed to 61-60 heading to the fourth.

The Nets were down only one after Moore's three-point play with 9:38 to play, but Gibson and Marshall made consecutive three-pointers to push the lead to 70-63 with 7:45 left. James made a jumper less than a minute later for his first points since the first quarter, and Marshall - 0-for-7 in Game 5 - buried another three to make it 75-66 with 5:47 remaining.

With that, Cleveland prevented another second-round heartbreak. The Cavs led Detroit, 3-2, last year before dropping the final two games.

"This is a big win for our franchise and a big win for us individually and a birthday present for Donyell Marshall," James said of his teammate, who went 6-for-10 from three-point range on the day he turned 34.

Before the game, James and the team said his girlfriend, who is pregnant with their second child, was fine, 2 days after she was taken to the hospital during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Cleveland. Neither James nor the Cavs said what was wrong.

In the Western Conference:

* At San Antonio, the Spurs avoided a trip back to Phoenix for a Game 7 by closing out their contentious series with the Suns with a 114-106 victory.

San Antonio will host the Utah Jazz tomorrow in the opening game of the Western Conference finals. It's the Spurs' third trip to the conference finals in the last 5 years, and they won the title the other two times.

Manu Ginobili had 33 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs, who saw a 20-point lead cut to five late in the game.

The Suns had All-NBA first-team selection Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw back from their one-game suspensions for leaving the bench area. Stoudemire led the Suns with 38 points, 15 in the fourth quarter, and 12 rebounds.

San Antonio's Robert Horry missed the second of his two-game suspension for the hit on Steve Nash that started the incident.

The Spurs let a big lead dwindle in the fourth quarter, just as they did in Game 4, but this time they didn't give up the lead or the game. Phoenix got as close as 106-101 with 33 seconds to play, but even Nash's 15 fourth-quarter points couldn't save the Suns.

Nash finished with 18 points and 14 assists.

Noteworthy

* The Houston Rockets fired coach Jeff Van Gundy, who frustrated management by saying after the season he needed time to ponder his future.

The Rockets' first-round ouster by Utah raised the possibility that he would step down or be fired. While Van Gundy considered whether to return for the final season on his contract, the team started looking elsewhere, reportedly contacting Rick Adelman, the former coach of Portland, Golden State and Sacramento.

* Phil Evans resigned as president of the NBA Development League, effective July 1. Evans decided not to relocate his family when the D-League moves from Greenville, S.C., to the NBA's headquarters in New York City.

* NBA coach of the year Sam Mitchell, who led the Raptors to a 47-35 record in his second season, agreed to a new contract with the team, the Canadian Press reported, citing an unidentified source close to the negotiations.

* Heat guard Dwyane Wade said in a statement he is recovering from surgery this week on his left shoulder and knee, operations he had the same day to speed up his return to the court. *