Yesterday, I was sitting in the Chicago Cubsí dugout during a quiet portion of the mediaís on-field access before the game against the Florida Marlins. Some of the reporters nearby were talking NBA and, as is my habit, I kept out of the conversation, hoping to pick up some insight on the mainstream reaction to Clevelandís jaw-dropping loss to the Celtics on Tuesday. Suffice to say, LeBron James was taking it on the proverbial chin in that little sewing circle. Then came one manís inevitable conclusion, given the city in which this conversation was taking place: "Michael would never have let that happen."
The "that" in question is a 32-point home loss in a playoff series. Perhaps Michael Jordan never lost a playoff game by such a lopsided scored. He did participate in a 107-81 home loss in the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland. Jordan had 20 points on 31 possessions in that game. (Score one for Craig Ehlo). There was a 22-point loss to Detroit at home in 1988 and a 21-point loss at Seattle in 1996. The Bulls rarely lost at all in the playoffs during their championship years but, nevertheless, Jordan had his hat handed to him a few times. So did Bird. So did Magic. So has Kobe.
The knee-jerk reaction to Jamesí poor performance in Game 5 against Boston is laughable, and I mean that literallyóI have guffawed at more than one article Iíve seen written on the game. Iíve learned that Jamesí legacy is on the line, that heís destroyed professional sports in Cleveland, that he shrinks from the challenge when heís most needed, that he doesnít deserve to be called "King James", that his body language suggests that he doesnít care if the Cavs win or lose, and that heís responsible for both the Grecian debt crisis and the oil spill in the Gulf. Thatís a lot to live up to for a 25-year-old who only a couple of weeks ago seemed immune to negative press. When they turn, they turn on you hard, LeBron. Itís like they wanted you to fail.
Look, I was as shocked by Tuesdayís score as anybody. I racked my brain and scanned NBA playoff game logs, trying to recall a more stunning result. I couldnít. I think the closest might have been Golden Stateís series-clincher against Dallas in 2007. The eighth-seeded Warriors had obviously already beaten the 66-win Mavericks three times before the last game, but I remember being convinced that Dallas would come back and win the series because, well, ones donít lose to eights. All Dallas had to do was win in Oakland, then theyíd take a Game 7 back at home and, in doing so, would restore normal order to the postseason proceedings.
Instead, the problems the mad-bombing Warriors presented the Mavs got exponentially worse in Game 6 and Golden State pounded Dallas 111-86. Dirk Nowitzki, to whom James has been oft-compared the last two days, went 2-of-13 in that game. Until the end, I was convinced by Dallasí regular-season success, just as I thoroughly believe Cleveland was the leagueís top team this season, though not by much. Anyway, you wonít see me claiming that I saw Game 5 coming. I was shocked. Shocked! Still am, truth be told.
I also canít defend LeBronís performance. He had a bad game, both in terms of results and in approach. A terrible game, really, after you consider the degree to which Clevelandís success is a function of his greatness. It was an ill-timed bad game, obviously, since the Celtics now have the momentum and a golden chance to close out the series tonight in Boston.
However, I canít quite climb aboard the LeBron-bashing bandwagon. I donít think heís a choker, or anything close to it. I donít think heís already got his mind on his impending free agency and, hopefully, a successful transition to Chicago. (This isnít a hope based on team affinity. My job as an NBA writer and analyst based in the Windy City would be so much more fun if LeBron came to town. Just sayiní. No offense intended, Cleveland fans. New York, either. Every NBA writer would love to have LeBron in his home city.) I donít think itís a matter of him pouting about Danny Ferry or Mike Brown. I do think there are some other factors in play in this series, some of which are obvious, and others which we can only speculate about. Believe it or not, they all more or less are related to basketball.
1. The Injury
We donít have a confirmed, official diagnosis as to what exactly is wrong with Jamesí elbow. The team says itís a sprain. James doggedly refuses to use it as an excuse. In the last 24 hours, a report based on an anonymous medical source claims that James in fact has a torn ligament in his right elbow. Reportedly, heís been getting periodic shots to numb the pain from the injury, but the shots can only be administered every 10 days. The closer James gets to a "shot day", the more of a problem the elbow is going to be. He canít get another shot until Monday, which is too late for this series.
Again, we donít have anyone on the record about this and the accuracy of this story is a huge piece to the puzzle. I donít care who you are or how good you are, if youíre a basketball player with a torn ligament in your shooting elbow, itís a problem. James claimed to injure the elbow a couple of weeks before the end of the regular season, but itís been much more of an issue since he took that nasty spill against the Bulls in the first round. Heís had some big games with it. Heís looked human at other times, and not just on Tuesday. Itís a wild card that makes anticipating his performance from here on out in the postseason a foolís errand.
2. The Defense
Letís not lose track of the fact that the Celtics scored 1.3 points per possession on Tuesday. James deserves his share of the blame for the poor effort, but the starting lineup Brown has been deploying in the postseason has three glaring defensive holes in it. Shaquille OíNeal and Antawn Jamison are liabilities in the interior; Mo Williams has been getting torched by Rajon Rondo to the extent that Brown has had to scramble his defensive assignments.
3. The Coach
Brown has gotten a sound thrashing from Doc Rivers in this series. The Cavaliers were rolling down the stretch of the regular season, without OíNeal or Zydrunas Ilgauskas around for the most part. Jamison, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson held down the big-man slots and Cleveland was at its best. OíNeal returned from a long layoff and was immediately inserted into a full-time role alongside Jamison. They had played four games together in the regular season. Brown just put them both in the lineup as if he were playing Strat-O-Matic. Meanwhile, Rivers hasnít been afraid to adjust the minutes of erratic big man Rasheed Wallace according to the level of his play.
Brown has elected to implement a new rotation at the worst possible time, while losing track of key regular-season contributors like Hickson and Jamario Moon. If you want to start OíNeal, thatís fine. Use him like Phoenix has used Jarron Collins. Suns coach Alvin Gentry inserted the unproductive Collins into the starting lineup when center Robin Lopez was injured. Doing so allowed him to keep his rotations intact and the continuity has paid off in the playoffs. Now Lopez may be ready to return for the West finals against the Lakers and all Gentry has to do is put him back into his original role and send Collins back to the end of the bench. Nary a ripple will be created. It was, first, Ferry, who engineered the Jamison deal, and Brown, who scrambled his usage patterns, that saw fit to shake up a team that was doing fine already.
4. The Celtics
Not nearly enough attention has been given to the fact that the Celtics have been playing great basketball on both ends of the floor in this series, with Game 3 being the exception. Boston coasted through the regular season and I think we were appropriately skeptical that it could flick the switch once the playoffs started, but thatís exactly whatís happened. Rivers regular-season strategy of trying to keep his core players fresh for the postseason seems to be working. Bostonís collective age still shows at times, but so does the chemistry that was so special two seasons ago. Letís not forget that the Celtics won the title the season before last, were the favorites to repeat last season before Kevin Garnett was injured and was right there at the top of the league before easing off the accelerator about a third of the way through this season. These Celtics, when at their optimum productivity, are a great, great defensive team. Could that just maybe have contributed to Clevelandís funk on Tuesday? Do you think? Anyway, if Iím a Celtics fan, Iím a little pissed that no one seems to be giving Boston any credit for "LeBacle."
5. The Game
More than any other sport, basketball is a game of momentum. We see this on a nightly basis during the season. A team gets a lead, lets up, the other team gets back in it. Sometimes, the team that builds the lead canít get back to being the aggressor. Other times, the team in the lead gets on a roll, the other team canít get good shots or make the ones that present themselves. The sheer flow of the game saps the energy from the struggling team. A certain inevitability seeps in. Itís called a bad game. It happens to all teams and all players. Between teams of equal, or near-equal, ability in a playoff series, there is no reason to believe that the momentum from one gameís performance, good or bad, has a lot of bearing on the results of the subsequent games. Weíve already seen this to be true on three occasions in this series.
Hereís the capper to all this LeBron reaction nonsense: We donít know how the story is going to end. Weíve seen codas written about a series that is still very much in doubt. Weíve also seen pseudo-perspectives written about a career which isnít even close to being half over. Sure, if the Cavaliers could lose tonight and itíd be another disappointing end for a team that posted the NBAís best record. However, this is also in fact a tremendous opportunity for James to ADD to his legacy. Given the injury, the media-fueled adversity from the Game 5 meltdown and the stakes attached to tonightís game, James could raise his stature to an almost-unassailable level. Even if he doesnít, James will have many chances to redeem himself over the next decade. Tonight is not the make or break game for Jamesí "legacy"ówhatever that means. Geez, people, get a grip.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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