No more excuses. Not now, not after this biblical bottoming out that pushes the Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink of an unthinkable collapse. And yet, after Tuesday’s ferocious failure of his professional career, the encompassing embarrassment of a 120-88 Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics, James dismissed his unthinkably poor performance with this colossal cop-out: “I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have three bad games in seven years, it’s easy to point them out.”
Who is he to be indignant after he gave a playoff game away? What’s he ever won to be so smug to the masses? That’s what drives the Celtics crazy about James. Eventually, he will understand his greatness isn’t measured on the hit-and-runs through NBA cities across a long season. It’s measured now, in the teeth of the battle, when a tiny guard, Rajon Rondo, has stolen his stage and nearly a series.
Somewhere, the whispers of the game’s greatest talents became a murmur louder and louder: James still doesn’t understand part of the price of greatness is inviting the burden on yourself and sparing those around you. He missed 11 of 14 shots. James didn’t score a basket until the third quarter. He was terrible, just terrible, and yet James couldn’t bring himself to say the worst home playoff loss in franchise history began and ended with him.
For all of James’ unselfishness on the floor, he can still be so selfish off it. They could’ve lined up the greatest players in the game’s history Tuesday night in the primes of their championship lives, and there isn’t one of them who would’ve deflected and deferred like the self-proclaimed King James. They would’ve been livid and they would’ve put it on themselves. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Tim Duncan and, yes, Shaquille O’Neal.
They had titles, and they would’ve mutilated themselves for public consumption. James is too cool, too stubborn and maybe too self-unaware. This is on me, they would’ve told you, and, I’ll get us out of this. They would’ve made sure teammates and opponents, fans and enemies understood. They would’ve made sure the whole world understood: This isn’t how an MVP plays in the playoffs. This isn’t how he lets a legacy linger in limbo. What you heard out of James was self-righteous: “I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out and be great and the best player on the court. When I don’t, I feel bad for myself.”
This wasn’t the night to feel bad for himself. There’s been enough pity for him in this series. As much as anything these past two years, the Cavaliers have taken on James’ persona: Entitled, arrogant and expectant that the sheer divine right of his greatness will win them a ring. Only, the Celtics are proud, old champions arisen out of the rubble and on the brink of closing out the Cavaliers on Thursday night at the Boston Garden. No one saw this coming on Tuesday night, the surgical removal of the Cavaliers’ hearts surrounded with a stunned silence that devolved into the debris of boos.
The Cavs live in fear of him, his moods, his whims, and it’s the reason no one ever tells him the truth: Hey ’Bron, you looked childish for refusing to shake the Orlando Magic’s hands last season. You sounded small grumbling about criticism for your wildly up-and-down play in this series. James walked out of the Q on Tuesday night and there’s no guarantee he’ll ever return as a Cavalier here.
Yet make no mistake: James has enough around him. This team isn’t perfect, isn’t assured of beating the Los Angeles Lakers, but it has no business losing in the conference semifinals – never mind failing to even compete. And, yes, as much as ever, this is on James.
James says the Cavaliers know all about what it takes, but he knows about winning in the regular season. This is a different time, a different game. Three bad games in seven years? He’s kidding himself. Now, he has a championship cast around him. Now, he’ll be judged. No one gives a damn what he did in the regular season.
Perhaps sooner than later, he’s going to get his coach fired for losing this series. Or the next to Orlando. He’s mocked Brown for acting too angry with the Game 2 thrashing, but the coach understood what James refused to acknowledge until Tuesday night: The Cavs have been wildly inconsistent in these playoffs and they’re nowhere near playing championship ball.
Across the regular season, James can play hard, let his talent take over and embark on all the side gigs that gobble his time.
This isn’t a part-time thing. Winning everything takes a single-minded, obsessive devotion. Michael Jordan had it. Kobe Bryant does, too. They didn’t want to win championships, they had to win them. They needed them for validation and identity and, later, they became moguls. LeBron James is running around recruiting college kids to his marketing company. He picks up the phone, tells them, “This is the King,” and makes his pitch to be represented in his stable. Think Kobe would ever bother with this? Or Michael? Not a chance when they were on the climb, not when they still had a fist free of rings.
LeBron James is on the clock now, and Game 6 in Boston could be for his legacy in Cleveland.
But I also kinda sorta feel that we’re overreacting. This series isn’t even over yet and I’m writing things like:
However, at the end of the day, it still comes down to LeBron. He’s the MVP, he’s the Chosen One, he’s the straw that stirs the drink that is the Cavaliers and he laid an egg in their biggest game of the season. Am I defending the other guys? Of course not. But as both Brian Spaeth and Bowers said, it wasn’t like Michael Jordan started games looking to set up Horace Grant or tried to get Craig Hodges going. He dominated and the other guys followed suit. Even now, this series is still there for the taking but only if LeBron goes out and actually takes it.
I just don’t know how badly he wants it.
Andrew at Waiting for Next Year writes something that I partially agree with:
I know this probably isn’t going to make me popular amongst the general populous of Cleveland, I am not going to let one series stain my perception of LeBron. I still remember in 2006 when Cleveland actually had a chance to beat a Pistons team they had no business even being in a series with. It was LeBron who put up 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists in a losing effort. Did LeBron not care then? Was he a loser then? Or how about Game 6 against Boston in 2008, an elimination game in which LeBron put up 32/12/6 to force a Game 7. Did LeBron not care then? Or even his epic duel with Paul Pierce when he put up 45 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists. Was he a loser who didn’t care then because his team still lost? Even just last year in the ECF against Orlando when he averaged 38.5 points, 8.33 rebounds, and 8.0 assists while his entire team crumbled around him. I guess that’s a player who can’t win and who doesn’t care and is ok with losing, huh?
You can call me a homer or whatever you want, but I know what LeBron is capable of and I’ve seen the competitive fire in LeBron. It was a cold statement when LeBron said that he spoils people with his game. He shouldn’t have said it. But he’s not wrong, either, and the reaction of the media and of fans alike is proof of this. People find it so incomprehensible that LeBron would actually have a couple bad games that they look to anything they can find to give them reason. Some people suddenly say LeBron has one foot out the door. Others say he’s doing this just to play with us so he can play the hero role in Games 6 and 7. Still others have implied that he’s doing this to get rid of Mike Brown (as if he couldn’t just say the word and get rid of Brown any time he chooses).
I’ll just say this. Something is wrong with LeBron right now. I don’t know if it’s his elbow, his relationship with the team, the coaches. Whatever it is….something is not right. If he can sort it out in the next couple days, this team is absolutely capable of coming back and winning this series. If not, we’re about to enter one of the most chaotic times Cleveland sports has ever seen. And for a lot of people, it’s easier to just write off LeBron and say “Screw him, he doesn’t care”. The truth and reality of the matter is deeper than that. Who knows what’s going on with LeBron, but I’ve seen enough out of him over the last 7 years to know he 100% cares and 100% wants to win. I hope whatever is wrong with him can be fixed before Game 6, and I’m not ready to give up hope just yet.
I agree about the previous playoff series. James was great. But those are different in one key aspect: there was no expectations. The losses to the Pistons and Celtics were feel good stories. I used to joke that the 2006 loss to the Pistons was the Greatest Second Round Loss Ever (and remember, the Cavs won Game 5 in Detroit to take a 3-2 lead).
The Cavs didn’t handle expectations against Orlando (and LeBron handled the loss poorly) and they haven’t held them against the Celtics. It just doesn’t. If the Cavs go on to lose this series (especially in Game 6) how can this not taint LeBron’s Cleveland legacy? Beating the Pistons three years ago doesn’t make up for a 15 point, 12 jumper stink bomb at home.
At the end of the day, yesterday’s performance was awful. No two ways about it. But if the Cavs lost 102-101 on a Ray Allen three, they’d still be in the exact same spot: down 3-2, heading back to Boston. They have to get past it, figure out what to fix (hey, play that Hickson guy who started 76 games) and move on.
They’re still alive and there’s still hope.