LeBron Sets Tone as Cavs Flop in Game 5
Because if there isn't, there is little explanation or excuse for the way James and the Cleveland Cavaliers played in a critical Game 5 Tuesday night. James' body language was awful from the tip, and his teammates followed. Boston won Game 5 convincingly, took a 3-2 series lead and gave the Cavs their worst home playoff loss ever, 120-88.
The LeBron James on the court Tuesday night in no way resembled the guy who has won consecutive MVPs and played with passion and fire no matter the score or situation. This guy wearing No. 23 for Cleveland carried himself more like a guy who had given up on his coach or already mentally hit free agency and signed with another team. Neither may be true. Shaquille O'Neal said the Cavs remain unified. But they sure didn't carry themselves like they are.
In a past playoff series after a loss, James waited for all his teammates and greeted each as he left the floor; James wanted them to know the series was not over. This night, he was the first one off the floor and into the locker room. In past games when teammates got into it with opponents, he would step in the middle -- playing the role of a leader. This night, he stood and watched as O'Neal and Kendrick Perkins jawed.
A bad game -- James shot 3 for 14 and had 15 points -- can make a great player look ordinary, but James and the Cavs let the home fans down to the point that the arena was near empty as the final minutes ticked off. There were even boos -- in a Game 5 of a playoff series. As the fourth quarter dragged on, a somber mood settled in the arena as the reality dawned that James could have played his last home game in Cleveland -- though he said that thought had not crossed his mind.
"We played awful," he said. "They had every right to boo us if they wanted to, we have a game like that, in a huge game. No disrespect to the fans. They've been great to us. ... If they feel it was right to boo, then so be it."
To say James lacked fire and intensity would be to say the Cavs were beat by Boston. Cleveland was embarrassed, humiliated and dominated on its home court in as close to a must-win as there is. Larry Bird and the old Celtics used to treat Game 5s as the second most important game of a playoff series, a mini-Game 7. Boston did that Tuesday, as all their key players played well. Cleveland treated it as there was either a Grand-Canyonesque split on the team, as if they didn't care, or as if they simply could not handle the situation.
The series is not over. Cavs coach Mike Brown said his team has to get ready for Game 6, O'Neal said the Cavs must win two and James pointed out the Cavs did win in Boston in Game 3. James said he's not worried being down 3-2, but admitted he's worried that the Cavs have not played consistently throughout the playoffs.
"We got to play hard," he said. "We got to play a great game. We got to execute. I think it's more mental. The game is more mentally challenging than us going out and playing the game. You got to think the game and know what's best on that particular game, what's working. If we have that type of mindset than we have a good chance to win."
As for the elbow, if it is bothering him, James would not admit it. He had said prior to the series that the only thing that would heal his bruise and strain is rest -- and he's not getting it in the playoffs.
"I'm not an excuse guy," he said. "The fact that I've spoiled a lot of people with my play, when you have a bad game here or there, when you have three bad games in a seven-year career, it's easy to point that out. I just got to be better. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be out there and try to be great, be the best player on the court. When I'm not, I feel bad for myself because I'm not going out there and doing the things I can do. But I don't hang my head or make excuses about anything going on, because that's not the type of player or person I am."
The numbers, though, paint a persuasive case that James needs rest to be at his best.
In the three games when there was one day between games, James has averaged 26.3 points and shot 17 for 47. The Cavs lost all three. In the two games when he had more than one day off between games, he scored 35 and 38 points and Cleveland won. In those two games, James made 26 of 46.
It is a truism that a guy who struggles shooting will look bad. That might have made James' game look worse. But his intensity, his fire, his passion, his on-court coaching of his teammates ... all were absent. Even in the first quarter when the game was close, James' body language was unusually distant. James has said again and again that he is the team's leader, and the team feeds off him. But this night he seemed to be oozing negative vibes.
"When you lose by 30-plus points you question intensity," James said. "I think we started off well. The first quarter we started off well. Made some shots. When you give up 30, 30 and 40 the next three quarters, that's not particularly getting it done. We came out with the right intentions, we just didn't have it go in."
And it all happened two games after the Cavs played as fine a game as they had played all season in taking a 2-1 series lead. The numbers dictate that the Cavs are not out of the series, but with the series returning to Boston for Game 6 the Cavs must win there and then come back and win Game 7.
"We cannot come back here," said Boston's Kevin Garnett. "We have to think this is our Game 7 coming up and we cannot afford to have the best team in the league have a Game 7 on their floor. Just not possible."
Perhaps it's unfair to make more of this than one bad night for James. He is human. Garnett said James was "very aggressive," and James alone does not account for Boston scoring 70 points in the second half. O'Neal and Jamario Moon both said the Cavs' problems begin and end with their defense. James has had many games when he carried his team. But this was one was so off, so poor it nearly screamed.
He did not score in the first quarter, had no field goals in the first half and did not make a jump shot until 1:58 was left in the third quarter. He was not alone, though. Brown failed with his combinations and substitutions -- dusting off Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who was decent) and Daniel Gibson (no factor) for the first time. As Brown sought solutions, University of Kentucky coach John Calipari sat front row on the baseline with James' agent near the Cavs bench and two seats from owner Dan Gilbert. The Celtics sat Rajon Rondo for seven minutes of the second quarter and went on a 16-0 run.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers took the podium after the game, sat down and raised his eyebrows. His expression was clear: Even he seemed shocked at what he had just seen. Winning was one thing, embarrassing the team that won more games than any other in the regular season was quite another.
The Cavs have one day to regroup, try to find some consistency, some intensity. Try to find some way to figure how they went from so impressive in Game 3 to so putrid in Game 5. If they don't find some answers, Boston will be playing for a spot in the Finals and an offseason that could be tumultuous and painful to Cleveland and its fans will have arrived far sooner than anyone dreamt possible.