CLEVELAND -- Doc Rivers was leaning against the wall outside the Celtics' locker room before Game 5 on Tuesday night discussing his team's identity. He could do this because his team actually has one.
More important, he knows what it is.
This is a crucial point for the Cavaliers, owners of the NBA's best record and its MVP but lacking the most important ingredient that wins playoffs series: knowing who you are and exploiting your opponent's weaknesses.
As the Boston lead swelled to 25, and then 30, and then finally 32 in the fourth quarter of another Cleveland heartbreak, the home-court advantage the Cavs had fought so hard to attain had long since disappeared. Game-production gimmicks and loud-mouth histrionics were met with hands folded in laps all around Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavs' biggest advantage -- the one they are holding onto for dear life now that they teeter on the brink of a stunningly premature playoff death -- was nullified, too. Two-time MVP LeBron James was a mere mortal for the third time in this series. In the most important game of the season -- maybe in the history of basketball in Cleveland -- LeBron had his worst performance as a pro, considering what was on the line.
"I'm not an excuse guy," James said after scoring only 15 points on 3-of-14 shooting in the Cavs' astonishing 120-88 loss to the Celtics. "And the fact that I spoil a lot of people with my play ... when I have three bad games in a seven-year career, it's easy to point that out."
That was the lone defensive moment from James on this night, and the only one I recalled seeing from his team over the previous three hours. When asked what it was like to get booed on his home court -- that's right, Cleveland fans booed LeBron -- he didn't pull a Joe Johnson. He took it like a pro.
Recap: Celtics 120, Cavaliers 88
Cavaliers-Celtics: Series: Boston up 3-2
"We played awful," James said. "They've got every right to boo us if they want to. No disrespect to the fans. They've been great to us. We try to go out there every game and try to give it our all. They see us at the highest level and they see us at the lowest level. If they felt they had the right to boo, so be it."
So LeBron can take criticism, which is good to know if this were his last game in the cozy confines of The Q, where he runs the place -- right down to whether he would come to the interview room to face the music after a performance like this. That's his call. Everything is here.
Which is why I have more advice for him -- advice that might help him get out of this mess.
Coaching advice for his coach -- who evidently needs it.
It was a truly baffling turn of events, with the Celtics' Big Three taking the torch that supposedly had been passed to Rajon Rondo and scorching the Cavs with it for much of the night. The enormity of the Cavs falling face first into a 3-2 deficit with Game 6 in Boston on Thursday night, as owner Dan Gilbert squirmed in his courtside perch -- three seats down from Kentucky coach John Calipari -- might wind up being the enduring image for a potentially catastrophic offseason.
If this winds up being LeBron's last home game as a Cav, it will leave a bad taste that lasts generations.
"I wasn't even thinking about that," James said. "For me to sit here and say this was our last game here, that wouldn't be me and that wouldn't be our team."
What team is that? The same one that has allowed the Celtics, who've been playing the same way with essentially the same personnel for three years, to impose their will on a team with the best record in the league on its home court? The style is different, but the outcome is the same as it was against Orlando last postseason. The Cavs couldn't figure out how to play against the Magic, and now they can't figure out how to play against the Celtics. It was an utter disgrace -- a 32-point loss at home with everything on the line -- and it's probably too late to fix it now.
But I'll try. Otherwise Mike Brown will be the one person we know is leaving Cleveland after this postseason is over.
|Mike Brown has a wealth of talent on his team, but doesn't seem to know how to best use it against the experienced Celtics. (Getty Images)|
And this is where playoff series are won and lost -- not with missed shots or momentum swings or angry postgame tirades, but with matchups that some coaches anticipate and expose, while other coaches don't.
So if the Cavs want to do all the things they say they want to do and bring this series back to Cleveland for Game 7, here is what they must do:
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the longest-tenured and most forgotten Cav, must start in place of Antawn Jamison at power forward in Game 6. There, he can do what Jamison can't -- defend Kevin Garnett. During the 14:21 when Ilgauskas was on the floor Tuesday night, the Celtics scored 14 points. And this was the first time Ilgauskas had played more than five minutes since Game 2 of the Chicago series.
During the other 34 minutes when Ilgauskas was on the bench, the Celtics scored 106 points. Garnett was a factor again, scoring at least 18 points for the fifth time in the series. And he will do it again in Game 6 unless Brown adjusts.
The point where the Cavs' will was broken for good, the opening minutes of the third quarter, also was the result of a coaching and execution clinic. A six-point halftime deficit ballooned to 16 in the first 3½ minutes of the second half.
Why? Two quick offensive rebounds led to 3-pointers by Ray Allen, who was being guarded by Mo Williams. Out of a timeout, Brown switched Williams to Rondo, who quickly went at him for a driving layup, an assist to Garnett and a 13-foot jumper. Just like that, it was 62-46 with 8:29 left in the third.
All because the Celtics know who they are and know whom to attack, and the Cavs don't.
"We know our identity," Rivers had been saying earlier outside the locker room. "We started out the season with it, but we lost our way, no question. We lost our way with all the injuries, and when guys came back, we struggled getting it back."
It's back now, because this is the playoffs, where teams like the Celtics know how to find every little advantage and make them all add up to nullify the MVP -- the "monster," Rivers called him -- on the other side.
I asked the MVP, the monster, if his team was still searching for an identity. He said, "I don't think so," but the rest of his answer said otherwise.
"We know what it takes to win as a team," he said. "But at the same time, we haven't played great basketball, and that's been all playoffs. ... I don't think it's an identity thing. I think it's a consistency thing."
I think it's a trend.
Twice in this series, LeBron has second-guessed his coach. The first instance came after the Cavs bounced back from their Game 2 loss by winning Game 3 in Boston, when LeBron reminded everyone how calm he had been in the face of Brown's angry postgame performance. After the Cavs lost Game 4, LeBron openly questioned why Brown had left Shaquille O'Neal on the bench with five fouls for nearly the entire fourth quarter. "Kind of surprising," is how James put it.
He had no second-guessing to offer Tuesday night. Partly because his own performance didn't warrant it, and partly because nothing more needs to be said.