Even LeBron James might not be able to save these Cleveland Cavaliers
With his teammates once again AWOL on the road, this burden might be too much for even James to shoulder
BOSTON — LeBron James sat closest to the locker room door in the aftermath of another bad road loss, mostly silent with both knees wrapped in ice. It would have been more fitting had that ice been wrapped around his shoulders, because the load he’s being forced to carry this entire postseason appears to be too much for one man to bear.
The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Wednesday’s Game 5 with two straight wins, momentum and the hopes of putting the team in position to clinch the series at home on Friday.
And in the most crucial game of the season, James, brilliant these entire playoffs, was average.
He appeared exhausted.
And, for the first time this season, maybe even showed signs of his age (33 years) and 15 seasons in the league.
That streak of James reaching his eighth straight NBA finals is now in serious jeopardy after Cleveland’s 96-83 loss to the Boston Celtics. The Celtics lead the series, 3-2, and can get to the NBA Finals with a win in Cleveland on Friday.
For the first time since 2012, James will find himself in an Eastern Conference playoff series elimination scenario that is not a Game 7. Back in 2012, James and the Miami Heat staved off elimination in Game 6 against the Boston Celtics before winning Game 7 at home to advance to the NBA Finals.
On that Miami team, James had a lot of help.
Other than Kevin Love, the rest of the Cavaliers have been AWOL this series when traveling outside of the Cleveland city limits.
Leading the LeBron James haters to salivate as they begin the process of unsheathing, and sharpening, their blades.
You can’t put all this on James. Not on a night where Tristan Thompson scored a single point, J.R. Smith two and George Hill seven.
That’s a total of 10 points (on two made field goals) from three veteran starters who, when needed the most, brought G League-level performances into an Eastern Conference finals game.
“Offensively, we just couldn’t make shots,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. “We didn’t play well.”
Asked about the energy level of James, who finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 turnovers, Lue responded, “He looked a little tired to me.”
One sign of that fatigue was a play in the opening minutes of the third quarter when James, finding himself on the perimeter in a favorable matchup against Aron Baynes, was able to easily blow by the Celtics center.
But instead of finishing with a dunk, James simply laid the ball up on the glass.
Another sign came late in the third quarter as Jayson Tatum drove to the basket with James in hot pursuit. Instead of attempting to block Tatum’s shot, James hit the brakes. Tatum (24 points) scored easily on a play that at the time increased the Boston lead to 16 points.
James had some bad turnovers (in further demonstration of incredible recall of his games, he would only consider three of those as being “careless”).
And James appeared reluctant to even attempt to dominate in the paint, opting to initiate most of his offense from the perimeter. In the second half, he appeared to want no part of even going inside, and even on those opportunities that he did, he launched several shots that were off balance.
James scored just 10 points in the second half (two in the fourth quarter) and had this response when asked whether he was overcome with fatigue: “I had my moments. But I think everybody at this point is tired or worn down.”
But not everybody trains with former Navy SEALs to give him the most physically imposing physique in the game.
Not everybody spends a million and a half dollars a year to keep his body in shape.
And not everybody has his game analyzed and scrutinized every time there’s a greatest-of-all-time conversation made about NBA players.
James, on many occasions this postseason, has shown that he possesses superpowers.
There was the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer against the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the opening round, a final touch to an amazing 44-point, 10-rebound and 8-assist performance.
There was the running one-hand banker at the buzzer in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the top-seeded Toronto Raptors, ending a night during which he had 38 points.
There have been six 40-point games in this postseason alone, including two earlier this series.
But if the Cavaliers can’t win these next two games, those accomplishments from James will be lost in the shadow of the fact that he failed in his attempt to get these Cavaliers to the NBA Finals for four straight years.
That streak of seven straight appearances in the NBA Finals, which would come to an end if he doesn’t win these next two games?
James said that doesn’t concern him.
“I’ve never went to any season saying, ‘OK, let’s have a Finals streak,’ ” James said. “It’s just all about just win every game and it should put us in position to play for a championship.
“I was able to go [to the Finals] four straight [times in Miami], and three straight since I’ve been back here,” James added. “It just happens because I’ve been able to play with some great players.”
That’s not the case this season.
The “trusted” players on this Cavaliers team are older.
And this squad is without the second-best player from Cleveland’s previous championship runs, Kyrie Irving.
When it comes to James, there is no middle ground: You either hate LeBron James or you love him.
And even though few expected the Cavaliers to beat either Golden State or Houston in the NBA Finals, the James critics were already preparing to throw shade on his NBA Finals history legacy (he is 3-5 in the Finals).
To get beaten in the Eastern Conference finals by a Boston Celtics team playing without its two best players, Irving and Gordon Hayward?
Those media and social media haters are preparing to push up their delivery date of hate.
LeBron James is going to need a miracle if he’s to reach the NBA Finals for the eighth straight time.
He’s also going to need a lot of help that, on the road, doesn’t appear to exist.