He looked like LeBron, he walked like LeBron, he jumped like LeBron, but ... wow. As Charles Barkley said postgame, "Shocking is a good word, Ernie." Seriously.
It may have come after a 32-point Boston win left us all shellshocked, but it was about LeBron James. Barkley later said of James, "As a fan, I'm disappointed." There are plenty of reasons Cleveland lost — perimeter defense, Mike Brown's refusal to go small, and a lights-out performance by the Celtics — but there was only one reason the Cavaliers lost like THAT. Tuesday night in Cleveland, LeBron James just disappeared.
Just a few weeks ago, I mentioned to a friend that it'd be a great prompt to ask a group of writers to put together 1,000 words describing LeBron's 2009-10 season. Now? Put those same writers in a room and ask them to describe what happened last night in Cleveland. This wasn't just a "rough shooting night" or a series of "bad bounces" that didn't go Cleveland's way. This was the best player on earth pulling a disappearing act and taking his team down with him. Which LeBron was calling the shots last night?
It's not really surprising that Boston won. I mean it is, because the Cavs were favored, but it's not historically surprising. LeBron James going 3-14 and floating around the court like a ghost, while his team's season crumbled around him? That's something we'll remember for a long, long time. Tuesday night was a moment of truth for LeBron — either a wake-up call that shapes him going forward, or a sign that maybe, possibly, we've been wrong all along in crowning King James.
The Cleveland fans sat there stunned in Quicken Loans Arena, and you could feel the anxiety hundreds of miles away. An entire city sitting there disappointed, wondering amongst themselves:
"Is this how it’s supposed to end for us? With this? Our star mailing it in on the biggest stage possible, our coach sitting there on the sidelines with his arms folded, and our rivals doing shooting drills for the second half? That's how the story ends?"
Those are the questions Cleveland fans — and players, coaches and everyone else around the NBA — get to ask themselves over the next 48 hours. And for Cleveland, that soul searching may be particularly brutal, because last night's stakes were higher than you think.
When a seven-game series is tied 2-2, the team that wins the fifth game goes on to win the series 83% of the time. Boston now has control of the series, and a chance to win it at home on Thursday night. Tuesday, we kept hearing, "If the Cavs lose tonight, there's a good chance they'll lose in Boston, and then what if LeBron James leaves in the offseason? Game 5 could be his last home game in Cleveland." Do you think LeBron's deaf? He heard it too. He knew what was in play Tuesday night. Everyone did.
As the Cavaliers beat writer Brian Windhorst tweeted in the fourth quarter: "Can't dodge the feeling that the fallout from this night and effort could be felt for years. That's the reality."
"I missed a lot of open shots that I’m capable of making," LeBron said afterward. "You don’t see it a lot out of me, so when it happens, it’s a big surprise."
But in light of those comments, let’s clarify: LeBron doesn’t deserve this criticism for not shooting well, but for not going down shooting.
He spent much of the second half dazed and detached. Look at ESPN's shot chart. Of his 10 shots in the second half, only two were in the lane, one of which was a wide-open breakaway. Of his 12 free throws for the game, 10 were in the first half. In other words, when the game was on the line and the Celtics pushed him, LeBron stopped attacking. Instead, there he was, settling for 22-foot jumpshots, passing off to teammates, and continuously looking up to scoreboard with a blank look, watching the Celtics widen their lead from six at halftime, to 17 entering the fourth quarter, and then 32 at the final horn. That’s not an "off night." That’s a great player cracking under the pressure.
"I don’t mind guys having a bad night, some nights you don’t make shots," explained Barkley afterward. "But in this game, I had a problem with LeBron not being aggressive." Maybe we can forgive that with other players, but not the Greatest. This was Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope, except LeBron never got off the ropes to throw a punch.
For someone else, even putting him in the same sentence as Ali would be unfair, but not LeBron. He's courted this stuff from day one. And he acts like he's already there. As he said postgame, "I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have three bad games in seven years, it’s easy to point them out."
Actually, LeBron, it's easy to point out a bad game when it happens on national television against an aging, underdog team, in a crucial playoff game, with every NBA fan on the planet waiting anxiously, asking themselves, "What's LeBron going to do here?"
When you do nothing, then it's pretty easy to point out you had a bad game.
And at that point? Your seven-year career becomes irrelevant.
Because this isn't a commercial. This is actually happening to LeBron James, the real-life basketball player. It's not a cover story on LeBron James, the icon, and what he could do over the course of his career. It's not about his business pursuits with Jay-Z, or the fashion sense that landed him on GQ last year. It's about the one thing that made all that other stuff possible in the first place: Basketball, and being the best at it.
Fair or not, the best basketball player on earth can't have games like Tuesday night.
It was one game, sure. But make no mistake: what happened Tuesday changes the narrative for LeBron. So far, he's gotten the benefit of the doubt in big games because of his age, his teammates, his coaches, and because, at the end of the day, he's so talented that just about everyone felt safe assuming that one day he'd put it all together. Now, he's older, hardened by previous playoff experience, his teammates are better than ever before, and LeBron James has run out of excuses. Maybe there's something going on that we don't know about, but to outsiders, Tuesday night there was just 'Bron standing by idly as the Celtics smacked his team in the mouth on Cleveland's home court.
And now, for the first time in his professional life, there are real questions about who he is as a player. Forget the Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant comparisons — last night, I would have rather had Dwyane Wade. It doesn't mean LeBron's not a great player, but maybe he's not that kind of great player. The Greatest. The type of guy you can bet your life on in crunch time, because you know, even if he doesn't win, he'll kill himself trying.
For anyone that watched Tuesday night, LeBron wasn't exactly killing himself out there.
Maybe we anointed him earlier than we should have? Maybe he mistook the fame and fortune to mean that he'd Made It? Or maybe he's just not built the way we thought he was?
These are the questions that are going to be asked of LeBron James in the coming days. And he wanted it this way. He may not realize it now, wondering how we could criticize him after "three bad games in seven years," but this is the standard he set for himself. With all the commercials, the King James nickname, that ridiculous tattoo, and everything else that's become synonymous with LeBron James Inc.
Whether he realized it or not, all of that success hinged on his ability to win at the most important moments, and dazzle us when everyone's sitting at home asking, "What's LeBron going to do here?"
Ultimately, that's what being the Greatest is all about. It's not about marketing potential, or winning unanimous MVPs, or having the best regular season record two years running. It's not about hitting home runs when your team's winning in April, it's about hitting home runs when they're losing in October. Can LeBron James be that type of player?
If Cleveland loses on Thursday, you can add yet another notch to that city's belt of crushing disappointment. If they lose this series, you can bet Mike Brown will be looking for work by next week. If they lose, LeBron may leave in free agency, throwing the state of Ohio into about a thousand different kinds of depression. But more than anything, if the Cavs lose this series, LeBron's whole career shifts from "Can't wait to see what he does!" to "Will he ever do it?"
Playing in Boston, against a Celtics team that's beaten the crap out of the Cavs the past two games, LeBron's task won't be easy. Rajon Rondo's been spectacular all series, Paul Pierce finally stepped up in Game 5, and the whole Celtics team is playing better than ever. To win the next two games, LeBron will have to be nothing less than the best basketball player on earth.
The lights are on and the cameras are rolling, but the commercials are over now. It's time for the main event. Past time, actually. So... "What's LeBron going to do here?"
You could say the pressure's on, but LeBron's been laughing at pressure from day one. Right?