CLEVELAND -- As he came back onto the floor with 5:50 remaining the seats were half emptied, as they'd been seven long years ago and as they could be as soon as next season. The missing half of the audience had not waited to attend the final minutes of what may be
The night began with the same kind of promise that greeted James's 2003 arrival to Cleveland, and it ended with the crescendo of frustrations that has grown with each of his seven springtimes here. But this was entirely different than the others. In past years, the Cavs lost in spite of James. On Tuesday they lost
The reigning two-time MVP missed 11 of 14 shots Tuesday while settling for jumpers at an alarmingly ineffective rate. His Cavs lost 120-88 in Game 5, which trends historically as the crucial game of any tight series. James was 0 for 4 at the half and did not score his initial field goal until the 30th minute when he leaked away for a soft two-handed dunk that nicked at Boston's ascendant 65-52 advantage. As he ran back to his teammates he heard cheers tinged with about-time sarcasm.
"We played awful," said James. "They got every right to boo us if they want to."
Was this his farewell to Cleveland? Was this how it ends? The Cavs were leading 29-21 early in the second when Boston coach
"I'm not worried about it," said James when asked about needing a victory Thursday in Boston to avoid elimination. "It's a really good team we're going up against, and you'd hope you could be up 3-2. But we're not." He reminded everyone that Cleveland won Game 3 in Boston and could win there again, and then he appeared to hint at something. "We've got to play hard, we've got to execute," he went on. "The game is more mentally challenging than just going out there and playing the game. You've got to also think the game and know what's best -- and in that particular game it wasn't working. If we have that type of mindset then we have a good chance of winning."
A loss like this will raise all kinds of questions about the respect James and his teammates feel for coach
This is, in fact, a highly difficult team to coach. Management desperately needs to re-sign James when he becomes a free agent this summer because the value of the franchise will plummet by well over $100 million if he leaves, according to league sources. They have so many options -- play big, play small, play fast or pound it inside -- that when they fail you can guess who will be blamed for pulling the wrong levers. Brown tried everything to salvage this evening and change the growing trend of Boston's superiority over the last two games -- he went to
"The tough thing about this league is you can never predict the outcome of a game," said James. "You hope the gameplan is right and that you have it that night."
The one thing Brown was unable to do was to convince his best player to stop settling for jump shots. After trailing by a manageable 50-44 at the half, James would go 3 for 10 from the field and an inexplicable 1 for 2 from the line. Did
James's strained and bruised right elbow clearly is bothering him, which is all the more reason why it was so hard to understand his refusal to drive the ball inside for free throws. "I'm not an excuses guy," he said when asked about the effects of his elbow. "The fact that I spoil a lot of people with my play, when you have a bad game here or there -- you have three bad games in a seven-year career -- it's easy to point that out.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to be great, to try to be the best player on the court. And when I'm not, I feel bad for myself because I'm not going out there and doing the things that I know I can do. I'm not going to hang my head low or make excuses about anything that may be going on. That's just not the type of player and the type of person that I am."
Brown offered an upbeat challenge: "We'll learn about ourselves in Game 6 in Boston." It could very well be that James plays and leads at a high level Thursday, that Cleveland wins again on the road and then returns to protect its homecourt in Game 7. Over the next day, James is going to hear criticism of a kind he's never heard before -- that he isn't a leader, that he is much too friendly and not demanding enough of his teammates, that he lacks the ruthless finishing punch.
This was supposed to be his summer of triumph -- a championship parade followed by a tour of New York, Miami, Chicago and any other NBA city he wished to visit on their dime. But now there is something fundamentally wrong with his team's blasé response to the biggest games of the season, and with his own misguided belief that settling for jump shots will turn them rightside up again.
Now at 25, he is on the verge of being defined negatively for the first time in basketball. What he may not realize now, but will learn to appreciate at the far end of his career, is that he needs this criticism. Each of the biggest winners before him failed in his own way -- Michael,