Last night we “witnessed” one of the worst performance’s of LeBron’s career in Cleveland, and the entire team wilted in the face of the onslaught from the aggressive and disciplined Boston Celtics. I was there, and it was painful to watch.
Naturally, we’re hearing all sorts of reactions today. It’s hard to argue with any of them, as last night’s performance makes no sense following the incredible performance in Game 3. That said, there are several possibilities to consider.
-LeBron’s elbow. This is as good a reason as any. Maybe it hurt him again, and maybe that frustrated him when he couldn’t make any jump shots. The team responded by folding as LeBron folded.
-LeBron’s Killer Instinct. Maybe he just doesn’t have it, or he just can’t summon it consistently. Michael Jordan was a jerk, and he doesn’t have a gracious bone in his body, but he was a winner. It’s impossible to imagine him ever putting on a lackluster performance in the pivital game of a tough series when he’s looking for his first championship. He could have a bad game like anyone, but not in a way where people were questioning whether he wanted to be there.
-Something else. Who the hell knows what it could be, but perhaps something else was bothering LeBron, and he couldn’t find a way to shake the funk he found himself in.
With that backdrop, we also have the issue of Mike Brown. In one sense, you can’t blame any coach if the superstar player shows up and acts like he’d rather be somewhere else in a Game 5 situation. On the other hand, it’s clear Mike Brown isn’t maximizing LeBron’s performances, or the team’s performances, during the playoff run.
There have been all sorts of reactions. Terry Pluto has written an open letter to LeBron, telling him it’s time to show what he’s made of. James made some strange comments following the game, and Pluto calls him out.
After Game 5, you strangely said: “I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have a bad game here or there, you’ve had three bad games in a seven-year career, then it’s easy to point that out. So you got to be better.”
LeBron, it’s not just about a “bad game” or three. It’s not about people picking on you, or not appreciating what you’ve done for the franchise. Most fans are still putting the primary blame on coach Mike Brown and the other players for the Cavs being down 3-2 in this best-of-seven series.
The “I spoil a lot of people with my play,” sounds as if you’re feeling sorry for yourself. It’s time to realize that more is expected of you because so much more has been given to you — be it in terms of pure physical blessings, or an owner willing to try and outspend the government to stimulate a championship in Cleveland.
Study the tapes of the last four games of the Boston series. Imagine you are watching Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or any other franchise player wearing your No. 23. What would you say about their approach to those games?
Brian Windhorst explains that Mike Brown has had real problems dealing with the rotation now that Shaq is back, and the players are starting to grumble about it. But, the real problem is LeBron James and the strange way he’s approaching things.
Beyond Brown, however, there are other responsibilities. It lies with the captains and that means LeBron James. While he will be the first to tell you that he’s a leader and you can see that his teammates are fully invested in that situation, he has not seemed to act like one during much during this series.
First off, he’s undermined his coach by acting lax after losses when Brown has been sounding alarm bells. It is James’ personality not to be too worried about anything and it was not expected that he’d be throwing people into lockers and such. But his “we’ll get ‘em next game” philosophy has clearly backfired. With the exception of Game 3, despite all the handshakes and nonsense, the Cavs have been knocked on their heels in every game.
It has further become problematic that James has been disengaged during the games. Not only has he fallen into the trap of “letting the game come to him,” but he’s been increasingly distant. In huddles he’s looking at the ceiling or into the distance. It is not the James anyone on the team knows and his teammates and coaches have seen it. More problematic, they can’t explain it and that is making the entire locker room uneasy.
On Tuesday it was Zydrunas Ilgauskas and O’Neal that actually were more proactive. They were showing more leadership than James both on the floor and off the floor.
Windhorst elaborates further in his podcast, discussing how LeBron can be very moody at times, and how that’s creating real problems as many in the locker room have no idea what the problem is. He really calls out LeBron James and makes the charge that LeBron has not been mentally tough in this postseason. It’s a tough charge, but it’s spot on.
Naturally, many are focusing on how this may have been his last game in Cleveland. There will be plenty of time to discuss that after the season ends, and at that point we’ll find out if there’s any character in LeBron to go along with his incredible talent. There’s no use trying to interpret his actions now, as he’s a two-time MVP struggling in the playoffs, and he’s saying strange things.
James kept to himself in the locker room, momentarily popping out of the back room to drop his iPad on the empty chair in front of the spare locker next to his own, a “How ya doing?” being returned with an unexpected “Great.”
On this night, James was as far from great as he has been at any major moment of his career. The odd thing was, he didn’t seem overly distressed or disturbed by the predicament he and his team now find themselves in.
It was all kind of just too weird.
Leave it to Bill Simmons for some of the most dramatic analysis following the game.
Assuming the Celtics clinch the series on Thursday in Boston — a game in which LeBron James and the Cavaliers will have more pressure on them than any team in the history of the second round, and also a game that could determine how the next 12 years of NBA titles unfold and possibly assassinate professional basketball in Cleveland — we could end up remembering Game 5 as LeBron’s Last Cleveland Home Game Ever, One Of The Best Five Nights In Knicks History and/or The Game We Realized That LeBron Was Really The Next Karl Malone. So what happened? How did things fall apart completely, totally and (possibly) irrevocably in less than two hours?
The Karl Malone reference is classic Simmons.
Then he gives is a little perspective.
Of course, because of the stakes — you know, the future of a Cleveland dynasty hanging in the balance and all — it felt like one of the weightiest “Awful Big Games” by a great player in NBA history: 3-for-14 shooting, 0-4 on 3s, little urgency and a Mailman-like Botox game face (and he was at home!). He was perplexingly and memorably awful. As I tweeted, the “Kobe is better than LeBron” demo reacted to the game like Don Shula’s house after the Tyree Catch. It’s the trump card they desperately needed — they can always throw Game 5 in any LeBron defender’s face. Just remember, Kobe has laid more than a few big game eggs as well (see sidebar to the right). It happens.
Then he addresses the fans.
You just witnessed, quite possibly, the most damaging two minutes of the LeBron Era in Cleveland: Boston grabbed control and got Rondo going; LeBron’s shooting touch officially abandoned him; and the Cleveland fans turned on their team. Look, I’m all for booing your boys when the game has been decided — at some point, you have to let them know, “What just happened was NOT acceptable.” But doing it that early only makes the home team more skittish/nervous/urgent than they already were; it’s not like they’re thinking, “Crap, we thought we could get away without trying! They’re onto us! We gotta pick it up!” Booing makes everything worse. There’s no upside.
And yet, I can’t totally blame those fans because there was so much at stake; it transcended the game, the series and the season. Like, you could see yourself looking at LeBron in a Knicks jersey six months from now and saying, “I remember the moment I knew this would happen: Game 5, Boston-Cleveland, third quarter.” Every Cavs fan in that building probably had that creepy, stomach-turning vision and thought to themselves, “COME ON! WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN!!!!!!!” “(The ominous sight of LeBron’s buddy John Calipari sitting courtside probably wasn’t helping, especially when he’s rumored to be the next coach of a Bulls team that has summer cap space.) Throw in their coach’s abominable performance, LeBron’s no-show, and Boston gaining steam by the play, and what do you do? I don’t know. Cleveland chose to boo. Lustily. I can’t kill them on it … just pointing out that it didn’t help.
There’s really no point in analyzing this. The game spun out of control, the defense kept breaking down, so many in the crowd got frustrated and started booing. That’s it. If this frustrates LeBron and has any impact on his future decisions about staying, then he’s a big baby. I don’t think that’s the case. The Cavs stunk up the joint, and some fans booed. Big deal.
I’m not really looking forward to Game 6, but we also know this series can turn on a dime if LeBron James gets inspired again and turns in another classic performance like he did in Game 3. Until then, I’m putting aside all the talk about his future. The future is now, and let’s see how LeBron and his teammates respond.