Thursday May 13th, 2010

BOSTON -- It's all about LeBron James now. Can he out-Rondo the Celtics?

After playing one of the worst games of his career Tuesday, passively settling for jump shots as his Cavaliers were surrendering their home-court advantage in an unfathomable 120-88 Game 5 loss to the Celtics, the league MVP must now galvanize Cleveland to win Game 6 here Thursday. The fourth-seeded Celtics can finish their upset of No. 1 Cleveland with another win, and everything is turning Boston's way.

The Celtics have been the better team and point guard Rajon Rondo has been the best player for all but one-and-a-half games of this unpredictable series. In the second half of their mighty Game 5 romp, the Celtics outscored their hosts 70-44 by shooting 67.6 percent as Rondo and Ray Allen combined for 28 points. James' uncharacteristic response was to accept defeat: He was 3-of-10 from the field with three turnovers, two assists and, most damning of all, two free-throw attempts in 20 submissive minutes after halftime.

The Celtics don't expect the same from him in Game 6.

"If you know anybody who gives two cents about this game and is very, very competitive -- anything like me -- then they're going to go home and watch this tape,'' Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said of James. "Probably not eat, probably not sleep much, and be ready for Game 6. So we have to be ready for that.''

James has never experienced the level of criticism he's hearing now, and it won't be easy for him to fix the problems. For year after year Michael Jordan heard he lacked leadership skills before he and his teammates suddenly were ready to win. Kobe Bryant listened to complaints that he was too selfish to captain a championship team until he celebrated his personal breakthrough last year. Magic Johnson played horribly throughout the 1984 Finals loss to Boston, yet he wasn't able to react instantly as one bad game led to another -- he needed the following summer and season to make the improvements that led to revenge over Larry Bird's Celtics in '85. Even if James responds positively to the Game 5 loss, he may not have it in him to abruptly change what is ailing his team.

If James is focused on rescuing this series for Cleveland, we'll see his best work at the defensive end. The Cavs look frightened by the 6-foot-1 Rondo, who has beaten into the paint everyone assigned to him -- Mo Williams, Anthony Parker and James -- and then made exceptional decisions to either score (typically high off the glass) or create (most notably for Allen, who mortally wounded the Cavs with two three-pointers to open the second half of Game 5). The example of how to defend Rondo has been established by Boston's approach to collapsing on James and then closing out to his shooters.

"It was team defense,'' Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "Our guys got into his air space. They showed help the entire game. We did a better job helping Paul [Pierce] out. There have been a lot of times where we've left Paul on an island defensively. [On Tuesday] the talking and the help was there, which allowed him to stay out of foul trouble.''

Can the Cavs apply the same defensive resolution against Rondo and the Celtics?

"When you look at Cleveland, you know you've got to stop LeBron,'' said Pierce, who scored 21 in Game 5 while leading the defense against James. "With us, we've got four or five guys who can lead using scoring, from me, Rondo, Ray, KG. You never know where it's going to come from and that's what makes us so dangerous.''

They weren't so dangerous coming into the playoffs -- the Celtics were 27-27 after Christmas -- and Cleveland is left hoping Boston can't maintain its focus for a third straight win. Cleveland's formula has to start with tireless defense and then sprout out to the easy baskets in transition that will liberate James and open floor space for him to create for everyone, including Shaquille O'Neal, who had a strong 21 points while repeatedly cutting baseline for dunks in Game 5. James can and should also seek to control tempo by earning double-digit attempts at the foul line.

"There was little that we did right,'' Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "We can't dismiss this game. We have got to look at it and see what we can do better.''

The theme that backlights this evening is the future of James, who can become a free agent this summer. Will this be his final game as a Cavalier?

But the immediate question is more pertinent: Why isn't he imposing the same kind of matchup problems that Rondo is creating for the Celtics?

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