Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cleveland Ponders the Unthinkable

CLEVELAND — The questions have moved beyond the suspect elbow to LeBron James’s head, his slumped shoulders, his pulse, his spirit and his legacy. A playoff defeat this devastating, and a performance this inexplicable, practically requires a full body scan.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and a legion of panicked fans are trying to come to grips with an unsettling present, an uncertain future and the puzzling play of James, the city’s greatest sports icon.

On Tuesday night, the Cavaliers were humiliated by the Boston Celtics, 120-88, and pushed to the brink of playoff elimination. James was strangely passive and ultimately ineffective. He took 14 shots, missed 11, and drifted in and out of the offense. At times, he seemed oddly detached from the game and his teammates.

It was not what anyone expected from a two-time most valuable player and the league’s pre-eminent star — not with the Cavaliers’ title hopes at stake and James’s future hanging in the balance.

Terry Pluto, a columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, called James “passive” and “emotionally distant.” In a poll on the newspaper’s Web site, 53 percent of fans blamed James for the loss. (Coach Mike Brown was a distant second, with 23 percent of the vote.) The gap between James and his adoring public has never seemed greater.

The Celtics hold a 3-2 lead in this second-round series and could close it out Thursday night in Boston. Fans are already mulling the potential apocalypse: Cavs lose, James leaves, franchise dies.

“It’s a panic,” James said Wednesday after a team film session and brief practice.

He projected a cool confidence — indeed, an emotional distance — on every topic, from the state of his injured right elbow to the consequences of a series defeat. He said it was “who I am,” that it was necessary not to show too much.

“I mean, you don’t know if I’m angry or not,” James said. “I’m not going to show you that I’m angry. For me, if I show a sense of panic, just like you say, guys follow my lead.”

At the moment, critics would say that James is not doing much leading at all. Over the past two games, both losses, he has averaged 18.5 points and 5 turnovers while shooting 31 percent from the field. His last dominant performance came in Game 3, when he led the Cavaliers to their last win with 38 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.

James has repeatedly dismissed concerns about his elbow, although it is his only known physical ailment. On Wednesday, he said it was “an issue I’ll deal with in the off-season” — the first time he has framed it in such terms.

Yet James showed no discomfort during a shooting contest with teammates, flinging 3-pointers with ease. When he missed, James would profanely chastise himself. With reporters standing within earshot, he also made light of his injury.

“I’ve got a handicapped sticker on,” he said to his teammates, “so y’all got to give me special privileges.”

More than any other title-contending team in the league, the Cavaliers are profoundly dependent on their franchise star. James is their leading scorer, rebounder and playmaker. No one else can consistently create his own shot or chances for others. So when James slumps, the Cavaliers go impotent.

In Game 5, the Celtics crowded the paint and were active on defense, cutting off James’s usual drives. But he hardly challenged them. Although renowned for his basketball I.Q. and court vision, James made several puzzling decisions — overdribbling, making late passes and generally stalling the offense.

Brown called the performance “abnormal” and “uncharacteristic of what he’s done throughout his career,” but did not fault James for any lack of aggression.

James shrugged off his struggles.

“I’m never disappointed in my play,” he said. “I feel like I can do more, but I’m not disappointed at all.”

If James does not do more, and soon, the Cavaliers’ season will be over. It is no stretch to say that Game 6 is the biggest playoff game in franchise history. A win brings the series back to Quicken Loans Arena for Game 7. A loss could mean oblivion. James is expected to become a free agent July 1 and has been vague about his intentions. Any further disappointment could push him toward the door.

The Cavaliers were swept in their only finals appearance, in 2007, and have been a postseason bust for the last two years, losing in the conference semifinals in 2008 and in the conference finals in 2009.

The signs for Game 6 are not encouraging. Cleveland is 2-4 in elimination games in the James era — 0-3 on the road — and has never won a series after facing elimination.

The front office has tried desperately to get James better teammates, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal last summer and Antawn Jamison in February. Cleveland’s payroll is among the highest in the league.

The team owner Dan Gilbert, who typically chooses his words carefully, made his frustration public late Tuesday night.

“The last two home playoff losses, and the manner in which we lost these games, does not come close to being anywhere near the high expectations all of us have of our organization,” Gilbert told The Plain Dealer. “Our fans and supporters deserve more.”

There is already intense scrutiny of Brown, whose in-game adjustments and rotation have frequently been questioned. If the Cavaliers lose, there will be added heat on Danny Ferry, the general manager, for failing to surround James with better players.

For now, all eyes are on one transcendent player, his sore elbow and his dubious legacy.

“It’s not a time to dwell on the past,” James said, “it’s time to look at the future.”

That is exactly what Cavaliers fans are worried about.

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