Thursday May 28th, 2009

CLEVELAND -- He is averaging an outrageous 42.3 points in the Eastern Conference finals while shooting 50.9 percent with 7.3 assists -- numbers that exceed his MVP season. So what more is LeBron James supposed to do?

"Just try to win ball games," he said less than two hours before he contributed 44 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists to Cleveland's loss in Game 4 at Orlando, stranding the Cavaliers with a 3-1 deficit heading into Game 5 here Thursday night. "Just try to win ball games and put our team in a position to win every game. I've been able to do that."

But the Cavs have wasted those chances. Despite his gaudy numbers, James hasn't been blameless, as he acknowledged after committing an unusual seven turnovers in the final 12 minutes of regulation and overtime in Game 4. Those mistakes were forced by a Magic defensive strategy that is enabling LeBron to score while limiting opportunities for his teammates. The failure of those teammates is the story of Cleveland's series. Knowing that he can't outscore Orlando by himself, and wired as he is to make plays for others, James was forced to take risks in hopes of rallying his team.

It remains too early for an autopsy on Cleveland, which isn't being blown out of the gym. The Cavs have lost three games by a total of 13 points, and they could very well reverse that trend with a victory Thursday that would create a dramatic Game 6 showdown in Orlando on Saturday. But the Cavs' inability to overcome the mismatches drawn up by Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy has revived suspicions that Cleveland needs to gather more talent around the game's most talented star.

After six months and two postseason series' worth of dominance, the other 11 Cavs suddenly are running out of time to prove they are good enough. All-Star point guard Mo Williams is suffering a shooting slump (32.4 percent in the series) at the worst possible time. No one can accuse him of not trying: He was in the gym at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, exhaustively trying to find his rhythm, and in the first half that night he was among the most aggressive Cavs while scoring 12 points. But he appeared to vanish after halftime and finished 5-of-15 for 18 points.

Delonte West (17 points and seven assists) had his best game of the series Tuesday while coach Mike Brown tried to revive Daniel Gibson and Wally Szczerbiak, who combined for 10 points after playing no significant role in the opening three games.

More worrisome than the offensive numbers is Cleveland's passive defense. The Cavs are unable to defend the perimeter against Orlando's taller three-point shooters, and they're allowing Magic center Dwight Howard to set up in the post as he pleases. The Cavs' depth of big men was supposed to be a strength, but Howard (22.8 points in the series) is having a much easier time with them than he did in the last round against Kendrick Perkins and the undermanned Celtics (who held him to 16.4 points).

For all of that, the Cavs shouldn't be losing faith. In the first two games, they built leads of 16 and 23 points, respectively, and they held the lead at the end of both Games 1 and 4 before being undone by Rashard Lewis three-pointers.

"This thing is a long, long, long way from over," said Van Gundy, who, of course, would say the same if he were up 3-0 on the Grizzlies, but in this case it carries a ring of the truth. "When you've got a guy as great as him on the other side, you're a long way from done."

"Him" being James. It is entirely possible that this 3-1 deficit is mere prelude to a preposterous, run-the-table comeback of which he is entirely capable. When Lewis missed a free throw to leave Cleveland within 116-114 with 3.2 seconds remaining in OT in Game 4, a moment of encompassing dread struck the Orlando audience at the thought of another miraculous LeBron three-pointer at the buzzer -- even though the Cavs had no timeouts and were inbounding from their baseline. One possession earlier, James had hit a turnaround catch-and-shoot three-pointer in which he tiptoed along the sideline near the Magic bench like an NFL receiver keeping both feet inbounds.

"I was talking to [Magic backup guard] Tyronn Lue coming off the court and I said, 'With LeBron James on the floor, doesn't 3.2 seconds seem like it's two minutes?'" Van Gundy recalled. "I mean, we put two guys on him on the inbounds. I don't know if anybody noticed that. We had two guys on him on the inbounds."

Van Gundy was referring to the criticism he took after single-covering James when he won Game 2. This time he assigned Courtney Lee in addition to Mickael Pietrus to cover James, who set up at midcourt to take the inbounds pass from Williams.

"He made a move like a tight end and caught the ball, and still gets off a reasonable shot," Van Gundy said.

It was a 40-footer, wide left, and it affirmed what James no doubt realizes: If the Cavs are a legitimate contender, they shouldn't be relying on him to perform miracles. His teammates should be putting Orlando on its heels, defending Howard in the paint and exploiting the opportunities that come with playing alongside the league MVP, rather than waiting for him to bail them out.

"We got to close out games right away," said James, referring to Orlando's second-half comebacks in Games 1, 2 and 4. "We are breaking down in areas that we haven't broke down all year. ... We need one stop. We haven't got one stop to win a ball game yet."

When he says "we," he means to say he can't do it by himself.

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