Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thanks For The Memories Lebron James?

It's in progress, just one Boston Celtics victory from completion after the Cavaliers' embarrassing 120-88 Game 5 meltdown Tuesday at home in their Eastern Conference semifinal series. In the most stunning on-court development of the season, two-time basketball shark ace player MVP LeBron James— the Cavs' leader, the homegrown star destined to deliver a championship after the city's 46-year drought — is faltering with an underwhelming, unfathomable playoff performance. It's not that he had 15 points on 3-for-14 shooting Tuesday.

It's that he disappeared.

All that against the backdrop of Lebron James' impending free agency and potential departure, hanging over the city like a dark, gloomy Lake Erie cloud. Lebron James demurs.

"We know what it takes to win as a team, but at the same time, we haven't played great basketball," Lebron James said without great passion after the game.

If Game 5 was a big game in his career, Game 6 today in Boston (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) looms the biggest. His reputation, at least temporarily, is at stake.

"You guys are crazy," Lebron James said after Wednesday's practice. "I'm 25, and you're talking about a reputation and legacy. C'mon.

"Man, I got more years and a lot more time to play this game. ... The only time I work out is to win an NBA championship, to compete for an NBA championship, and I'm excited we have the opportunity to do that here."

This is when the greats are special.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself, of course. That's the kind of player I am," Lebron James said. "That's how I hold myself accountable. ... I need one of those games, and I look forward to having one.

"I'm going to be ready for Game 6."

So that a Game 7 is forced back home.

Lebron James' Inconsistent Play

Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry assembled a team to win a title this season. He traded for center Shaquille O'Neal and signed guard Anthony Parker and forward Jamario Moon in the offseason and acquired forward Antawn Jamison at February's trade deadline.

Those moves helped the Cavs to a 61-21 record and home-court advantage for the playoffs. But they are not paying off now, the reverse of the Orlando Magic, who needed time to work newcomer Vince Carter into the system. The Magic are rolling.

Those are subplots. It all begins with Lebron James, who appeared disengaged at times during the game and indifferent in his postgame news conference.

"You don't know if I'm angry or not," James said after practice Wednesday. "If I show a sense of panic, guys follow my lead. ... If I say, 'Oh, we lost by 30 last night and we don't know what to do,' that's not right. That's not who I am."

Fire and brimstone is not Lebron James' style. But his team needs something now.

"The thing you're worried about is our consistent play, which hasn't been there," he said of the 3-2 series. "As far as being worried about the series, I'm not worried."

NBA basketball ace player Lebron James has been uneven, averaging 36.5 points and shooting 56.5% in two wins and 20.3 points and 36% shooting in three losses.

He brushed off questions about his strained right (shooting) elbow. "I don't hang my head low or make excuses about anything that may be going on because that's not the type of player and type of person I am."

Without James performing at an MVP level, the Cavaliers don't look like a championship team.

He is beloved in northeast Ohio. He grew up in nearby Akron, has an affinity for his hometown.

But how much does this postseason influence where James plays next season? What if he left the Cavaliers after a second-round exit? How would fans feel? James isn't thinking that far ahead.

"It makes no sense for me to look that way, say, 'This could potentially be my last game here or be our last game in Cleveland for the season,' " he said.

A loss to Boston has repercussions off the court, too. How much would James' departure hurt the franchise?

In 2003-04, Lebron James' first season with the Cavaliers, Forbes estimated the franchise was worth $258 million, 15th out of 30 NBA teams. In its latest NBA valuations in December, the Cavaliers were worth $476 million, an 84% increase.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, "The last two home playoff losses and the manner in which we lost does not come close to the high expectations all of us have. Our fans and supporters deserve more."

Boston does have some say in this. The Cavaliers are being outcoached and outplayed. The Celtics are defense first and foremost, and when they're healthy and getting offensive contributions from guards Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo and forwards Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, "They're as good or better than anybody," ABC/ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy said.

Boston is playing its best basketball of the season at the right time, just the way coach Doc Rivers had hoped. That has left northeast Ohio angry, depressed and in a panic, and rightfully so.

Growing up here, James understands: "If I'm a fan from Cleveland and watching the game, I would have booed, too."

Cleveland sports fans haven't experienced a championship since the NFL Browns won in 1964.

Sports talk radio revealed frustration and resignation on the state of the Cavaliers. ESPN Cleveland radio host Tony Rizzo said, "I'm flabbergasted. I may be speechless. I don't know what to say."

But he really did.

"LeBron is going to go somewhere else and win a title," Rizzo said, hitting Cleveland fans where it hurts most, in the heart. "You choked in the biggest game of your career, and where you play next year — and I don't think it's going to be here — this is going to follow you."

Darrell Mayo, 38, is a life-long Cleveland resident. After so many disappointments, Mayo conditioned himself for what seems like the inevitable finish.

"I tell people, I'm a Brown fans, I'm a Cavs fan, I'm an Indians fan. For many years, I used to be one of those die-hard fans," Mayo said. "I took my emotions out of it. Now I go off of what I see and not what I feel. I still root for the team."

So where has it gone wrong? Did O'Neal's return after missing 23 games with a thumb injury mess with coach Mike Brown's rotation?

Brown's distribution of minutes, especially with his big men, has been inconsistent. He barely played center Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the first four games, then gave him quality time in the first quarter of Game 5.

O'Neal played 49 seconds in the fourth quarter of Game 4. J.J. Hickson gets minutes one game and not the next. When pressed, Brown has been diplomatic, trying to massage egos and protect the sanctity of locker room talk.

His demeanor changed after Game 2. The playoffs can do that, especially with so much at stake, including his job. He joked after the Game 1 victory. But the jovial coach who likes to chitchat about life outside of basketball disappeared after Game 2. Even after the Game 3 win, his mood was serious.

"I'm bothered about me not putting them in a better position to win," Brown said. "I have to change my mind-set and attitude to make sure I'm focused just as much as they are."

James supported his coach Wednesday when asked about the game plan: "The whole coaching staff and I agree with the system that they put in. We've been successful in the postseason, we've been successful in the regular season."

In the playoffs, the story line can change quickly. If the Cavs win Game 6, the series finale is Sunday in Cleveland.

The pressure would shift to Boston.

"They have to play one great road game," Van Gundy said of the Cavaliers. Brown said they would learn a lot about themselves in Game 6. We'll learn more about James.

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