By Ian Thomsen
May 12, 2010

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 LeBron James's final game in Cleveland.

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 because of him.

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 Doc Rivers decided to rest point guard Rajon Rondo, who has been a mini-me version of LeBron for the Celtics. The Cavs should have cashed in but instead were instantly outscored 16-0 as Rondo's energy was replenished for the explosive third quarter. The first mutterings and groans could be heard when Kevin Garnett (18 points and 2 blocks) turned a pivoting jumper over Antawn Jamison to make it 32-29 for Boston. Then Tony Allen ran the baseline for an unmolested dunk, and that's when the booing started. Over long, excruciating stretches of the second half, they booed louder as Rondo (16 points and 4 assists in the second half) systematically robbed them of all their defensive dignity and Ray Allen (with six threes among his game-high 25 points) sniped from the edges and Garnett passed and scored as he pleased from the block amid 21 resurgent points from Paul Pierce, who essentially took on the early playmaking role to successfully become the finishing piece in this looming upset of the league's No. 1 seed. All this went on around LeBron while his witnesses booed and booed and booed.

"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 Mike Brown. This is not to insinuate any kind of mutiny or a wanton attempt to get Brown fired. But times of pressure will expose and deepen divisions, and this Cavs team has been consistently inconsistent for two postseasons now.

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 Shaquille O'Neal for 21 points (and 4 blocks) in 27 minutes, he went with Zydrunas Ilgauskas (for 14 minutes) at the expense of J.J. Hickson (who played 4), he even tried to bring in the forgotten Daniel Gibson to try to arrest Rondo.

"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 Michael Jordan ever fail so passively in such crucial circumstances?

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, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird -- and each was driven by that failure to succeed. The question for James is whether this failure is put to an end with victories in the next two games, or whether it is carried forth throughout the long summer ahead, carrying him like a flooding tide away from Cleveland and to a new home entirely.

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