Joe Posnanski
Wednesday May 12th, 2010

LeBron James' performance Tuesday night in Cleveland was one of the most puzzling things I've ever seen. Here it was, a crucial Game 5 against the Boston Celtics. The game was in Cleveland, and even on television it was apparent that the court was surrounded by insane emotions -- the expectation of victory, the hangover of 45-plus years of sports heartbreak, the hatred of the Celtics and all their victories, the lingering worry that LeBron himself might walk away when the season ends.

And LeBron James -- in one of the rarest performances of his staggeringly great career -- stunk up the joint.

It wasn't just that he missed shots. He did miss shots -- 11 out of 14, in fact (and all four of his three-pointers). It wasn't just that he was a non-factor on defense -- one steal, no blocks and so little energy. It wasn't just that he seemed to play in pain -- that sprained elbow clearly affects him. It wasn't just that he faded into the background as the Celtics outscored the Cavaliers 70-44 in the second half -- SEVENTY TO FORTY-FOUR! -- and those hyped Cleveland fans booed half-heartedly and then began to file out early rather than put themselves through the unhappy finish and, as the national media would too gleefully report (in my opinion), perhaps LeBron's farewell walk.

"I spoil people with my play," LeBron said after the game in the monotone voice that has become all too familiar after losses. He's right. LeBron James has been so good, so other-world good, that you expect genius whenever he steps on the floor. You expect another Fifth Symphony, another Hamlet, another Raging Bull, another Badlands, another transcendent performance, like they're easy for him, like it's nothing for him to slip on a cape, reverse the world's rotation, save the girl and show up in the office the next day with glasses and without a scratch.

But this isn't about LeBron being unable to muster genius. It wasn't just the way he played -- Gods have bad games too. No, it was how he played. He settled for jump shots. He settled for loose defense. That's the word of the day here: settled. There seemed so little fight in him. And that part was just shocking to see. Barely a week ago, in Boston, with the series beginning to develop a tone, LeBron attacked relentlessly, again and again, unstoppable, 21 points in the first quarter, creating a whirlwind that the Celtics could not escape. On Tuesday, meanwhile, he fumbled on the dribble, took the sorts of shots the Celtics wanted him to take, played as if his energy had been sapped ... like there was Kryptonite in the room.

The Cleveland sports saga has been written so many times, but one thing struck me Tuesday night: All of the Cleveland heartbreaks of years past came from similar places. What I mean by that is, well, yes, Red Right 88 hurt -- hurt more than any other moment I've had as a sports fan. Red Right 88, you probably know, was the name of the play when Brian Sipe threw his last-minute interception on Jan. 4, 1981. That was with the Browns seemingly on the brink of winning a playoff game against Oakland. Man, that hurt, in many ways. I have never quite recovered from it. But, realistically, that wasn't a great Browns team. They hadn't made the playoffs the seven years prior, and they would go 23-34 the four years after. They were just fantastic that year, winning with a makeshift defense willed by Lyle Alzado and a gambling offense guided by Sipe's fluttering passes. There was magic that Kardiac Kids season, but it was only that: magic. And Cinderella's ball always ends the same way.

Yes, The Drive hurt and The Fumble hurt -- those were the two heartbreaking losses for Cleveland against Denver in the AFC Championship Games. John Elway engineered the 98-yard-drive through the Cleveland wind that forced overtime and a Browns' loss. Earnest Byner -- after playing his guts out -- dropped the fumble that cost Cleveland a chance to tie the game in Denver. Both excruciating. Those Browns were probably every bit as good as Denver. But, at the same time, those Browns were more workmanlike than great, and the indispensable player on the field both days was Elway.

Yes, the Michael Jordan shot over Craig Ehlo hurt -- the one you have seen again and again in highlights -- but, yeah, he was Michael Jordan. Yes, the 1995 Indians were one of the great offensive teams in baseball history -- first in the league in average, on-base, slugging, runs, homers, stolen bases -- but they got shut down in the World Series by an Atlanta team that was one of the greatest pitching teams in baseball history, led by certain Hall of Famers. Yes, the finish of the 1997 World Series was devastating -- Cleveland blew a one-run lead to Florida in the ninth inning of Game 7 and lost in the 11th -- but that was a deeply flawed Indians team that won only 86 games. And, yes, when the Cavaliers got swept by San Antonio in the 2007 NBA Finals, well, they weren't nearly as good as the Spurs. That team was LeBron and a lot of vowels.

The point? Cleveland has felt a ton of pain in this never-ending Heartbreak Era, but it has not really had a historic underachiever. To the contrary, the heartbreaks have almost always been set up by overachieving teams, by good-to-very-good teams coming together and playing well and setting up tenuous hopes. Yes, over 45 years, you would think that one of the Great Expectations would come through. But if you were listing the 45 biggest underachievers in sports over the last 45 years, I suspect none of those would be Cleveland teams. Maybe last year's Cavaliers team would sneak on the list or the 1996 Indians. Maybe not. Everyone knows that Cleveland has not won a championship since the 1964 Browns. But it's also true that Cleveland really has not had a definitive great team in a long, long time.

That is, until now. This Cavaliers team is a definitive great team. It has the best player in the game -- one of the best players of all time -- and he's in his prime. It has an aging version of one of the most dominant players in NBA history (Shaquille O'Neal). It has two other starters who have been All-Stars (Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison), two of the league's best three-point shooters (Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson), a 21-year-old force of will (J.J. Hickson) and a defensive whirlwind (Anderson Varejao). It had the best record in the NBA this year, and if anything it felt like the Cavs should have won more games.

And now, they are on the brink of defeat -- not in the Finals, not even in the Eastern Conference finals, but right now against Boston. The series is not over, of course. If Cleveland beats Boston on Thursday night, then suddenly it all shifts back to Cleveland for Game 7 on Sunday. Win that game, and Tuesday's embarrassment just disappears into forgotten sports history. And you would expect a furious effort from the Cavaliers on Thursday. You would expect the energy to be so intense they would be glowing. You would expect LeBron James to take his game up to the stars, to the Magic System near Bird's Belt in the Jordan Galaxy.

You would expect real greatness from this team. As coach Mike Brown and various players and LeBron himself said, "We'll learn a lot about ourselves in Game 6." True enough. You would expect something remarkable from Cleveland and LeBron on Thursday, something that leaves everyone gasping for air.

Then again, we learned something about the Cavaliers on Tuesday. And after that game, there's really no telling what to expect.

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