Cavs Need LeBron to Play Like He Cares
Rarely has a single game or pair of games been more related to the fortunes of a franchise. Because if the Cleveland Cavaliers can't rebound in Game 6 against the Boston Celtics, a lot of futures will be mortgaged.
Mike Brown might not return as coach, or Danny Ferry as general manager. Then there is LeBron James, who could wind up in any number of cities as a free agent. Take away James and the Cavs become what they were at the end of Game 5 -- a middling group struggling in an arena of empty seats. Has the future of a franchise ever been more dependent on the results of one game? And has one player ever had more riding on a game than James has in Boston on Thursday?
This is the fallout from his effort Tuesday, which had Cavs fans, national analysts and anyone who follows basketball shocked and speechless. Yes, two wins will change a lot of feelings and emotions, but LeBron James is facing something he has probably never faced before in his basketball career: Doubt.
Serious, mind-numbing, legacy-tarnishing, eyebrow-raising, character-questioning doubt. It's brought on not by the fact that James shot so poorly Tuesday -- anyone can have a bad game -- but by the fact he was so detached and uninvolved in Cleveland's 32-point loss. It's one thing to shoot poorly and play hard. It's another to be passive, give an air of not caring and shoot poorly. James did all that, and even if it all just looked bad because he had a bad night it doesn't matter. Because everyone saw how he played, and it almost looked like he did not care. His elbow may be injured, but elbows (theoretically) don't affect intensity and attitude.
This is the antithesis of everything James has represented in his career. He has been passionate about every game, and in the playoffs he has called every possession vital. Prior to this year's playoffs, he talked of having a serious countenance for every play of every game. It didn't carry through to Game 5. That it was so unlike James was exactly what made it so shocking. It doesn't mean his entire career can be questioned, but he sure put this series in doubt.
James stared into the sky during timeouts and sauntered to the bench when replaced as if it were an imposition on his time. He did not make a shot until fewer than seven minutes were left in the third quarter, and he took two shots and did not score in the first period. He was the first guy off the court when the game ended.
James always supports his teammates, but Tuesday he stood passively while Shaquille O'Neal and Kendrick Perkins got into it. And in the fourth quarter, Rajon Rondo chattered at the Cavs bench and Mo Williams stepped in to tell him to be quiet. James again stood by.
How this happened two games after the Cavs played their best game of the season has brought many puzzled queries and few answers. The result is that James is diminishing his stature and tarnishing his legacy. The guy has done so much right and done so well by his team, any misstep stands out. But when it comes to a playoff game and he does not play hard or does not seem to want to play hard, it stands out. At that point, the pregame handshakes, the sideline celebrations, the talk about himself, the constant and ongoing free-agency circus, the talk of being a billionaire and a global icon ... they cease to be funny or interesting and instead become a guy making it about himself, a guy acting with a sense of entitlement he does not deserve because even with his incredible individual skills he does not have the championships necessary to be among the true elite.
The attitude he showed and the aura he gave off are what put James in some serious crosshairs for criticism. But like Smith Barney, he got it the old-fashioned way -- he earned it. And his words after the game -- especially when he said he had had three bad games in seven years -- did not help his cause. At a time when it seemed like a "this one's on me and I'll do everything I can to make sure it doesn't happen again" statement might have helped, James played the victim card.
A day later, James was unfazed. While his coach has talked about seeing what the team is made of, James has remained calm -- nearly placid -- and talked confidently. He did again on Wednesday, as his team concluded a workout prior to flying to Boston. He said he was looking forward to Game 6, and when asked why Cavs fans should be confident he said: "They got me."
James has made a point to tout himself as the team's leader, and if the two-time MVP is going to live up to his words there is no better time. He has two games left to re-establish his position among the NBA's best. It will be fascinating to see how he reacts. Not much rests on the results -- just his future and the future of a franchise.