CLEVELAND -- With the Cavaliers trailing by 22 points and a sense of dread in the silent arena, one fan yelled out for all to hear, "Bench him, Coach!"
The impassioned plea, aimed at Cleveland coach Mike Brown, was not meant for Jamario Moon or Delonte West, but for the two-time league MVP whose utter lack of skill and execution was so shocking that fans were left (actually, many of them did leave) to moan and grieve out loud.
|Cavaliers fans can only hope LeBron James' last game in Cleveland wasn't a listless loss. (AP)|
"My shots weren't falling," said James after the game. "I did get to the free-throw line."
The most memorable games in NBA history are personal or epic: Jerry West's 60-foot game-tying shot in the NBA Finals against the Knicks in 1970; the Celtics' triple-overtime victory against Phoenix in 1976 (maybe the best game of all time); Magic filling in for an injured Kareem in the 1980 Finals; Larry Bird stealing Isiah's inbounds pass and feeding it to the cutting Dennis Johnson for the winning layup in Game 5 of the '87 Eastern Conference finals.
Yours might be Reggie Miller's 39 points against New York (an astonishing 25 of them in the fourth quarter) in the '94 Eastern Conference finals, or Jordan's gorgeous shot against the Jazz in '98 after stripping Karl Malone, or maybe Jordan's playoff record 63 points against Boston in '86, when Bird said, "Tonight, God was disguised as No. 23."
Memorable games tend to be seen in light of the hero's great performance, but LeBron's game against Boston should go down as one of the most remarkable, significant games in history.
"He just seemed so flat, he even looked a little thin," TNT analyst Mike Fratello said. "His performance was so out of character -- he took only one shot the entire first quarter."
Let the theories begin.
Was James trying to play his way out of Cleveland? The superstar from nearby Akron is honored here with a 30-foot banner downtown that reads, "Born here. Raised here. Plays here. Stays here." So what was up with his historic implosion? Has the famous free agent already mentally moved along?
Then there was the presence of John Calipari in the house. Was the Kentucky coach there as a friend or was there something else in the air? One fan, upon seeing Calipari, whispered to me in a terrified tone, "Oh, no, he's going to leave Kentucky and take LeBron to the Bulls, where Calipari will be reunited with Derrick Rose!"
Or is it something missing in LeBron's near-perfect game? Does he not respond to playoff pressure?
James has been to the Finals, yes, in 2007, but not many expected Cleveland to win. In 2008, the Cavs lost to Boston in seven games when the Celtics were heavily favored. But in Game 5 of the second round Tuesday night, everyone expected James to deliver with energy and focus and a supreme sense of who he is. This is the guy, after all, who asked Brown for the additional burden of covering Rajon Rondo. No one talked to James about that after the game.
This wasn't LeBron's worst game in the playoffs, hard as that is to imagine. In Game 1 of those Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston in 2008, he shot 2 for 18 for 12 points with 10 turnovers.
But this was a night when the best player in the game, at home, was not supposed to be taking fall-away jumpers.
Is there something wrong with him? To many, James looked tired, lifeless from the start. Some even said he looked as if he has lost weight. How else to explain the lack of intensity?
The entire city felt heartbroken and shocked after the game, as if some grim, inevitable ending was coming to pass. The Indians lost CC Sabathia to the Yankees -- was the city now losing LeBron to someone else? From every account, the city loves LeBron and he loves them back. But a loss on Thursday night in Game 6 will bruise this proud city beyond measure.
Of course, Cleveland could come back, and so could King James. Following the worst playoff effort of his career -- the 12 points against Boston two years ago -- LeBron bounced back, scoring a sparkling 45 points in the Game 7 loss. If he is to wear a ring, let it begin here.
As another King, Billie Jean, once said: "Champions keep doing it until they get it right."