INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- After an 11-minute interview session Wednesday in the wake of LeCollapse, LeBron James stopped grasping for the right words to properly convey the urgency of the moment.
This was good for all involved, because LeBron's efforts to capture the seriousness of the Cavaliers' premature brush with playoff elimination had not gone well over the past 15 hours or so. It was pointless to keep trying. LeBron hadn't been able to strike the right note in the postgame news conference Tuesday night, and nothing had changed after a night's sleep, a film session, and a spirited, 30-minute shooting contest with teammates that should have put to rest all questions about his elbow.
"You can't question the effort that we had," James actually said the day after a 32-point home loss to the Celtics in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Later, when asked if he was disappointed in his 15-point, 3-for-14 performance in the Cavs' most important game of the season, James went all you-talkin-to-me? on the nattering nabob who dared to question him.
"Me? Personally?" James said, as though he'd been asked if he'd made off with the waffle-knit robe from the Ritz-Carlton. "I'm not disappointed. I'm never disappointed in my play. I feel like I can do more, but I'm not disappointed at all."
OK, so this was going nowhere with James, whose utter public indifference to the astonishing turn of events in this series should make the Celtics quite nervous. Nervous? Yes, because either LeBron isn't all that concerned with what happens Thursday in Boston or he knows what will happen and is just waiting to say, "I told you so."
"I put a lot of pressure on myself, of course," James said. "That's the type of player I am. That's how I hold myself accountable. But I need one of those games and I look forward to having one."
At the end, more than 11 minutes in with the TV cameras still rolling as James walked off, he was asked why perennially anguished Cleveland fans should be confident that the Cavs will be able to force a seventh game.
"They got me," he said.
Finally, an honest, perceptive answer from the 25-year-old who calls himself the King.
I'm sure of very little heading into what is a defining game for James to this point in his seven-year career. Beyond the fact that his elbow seems fine, I know nothing of what will happen Thursday night in Boston. I've concluded that his elbow is a non-factor by virtue of standing on the Cavs' practice court Wednesday, 15 feet away from James as he engaged in a spirited and fairly grueling shooting contest with several teammates. During the half-hour session, James launched dozens of shots with no hesitation or discomfort. This was an activity I suppose team doctors would've discouraged if his elbow were about to come apart, as some coverage of the joint would have you believe.
Recap: Celtics 120, Cavaliers 88
Cavaliers-Celtics: Series: Boston up 3-2
"The elbow is an issue I'll deal with in the offseason," James said. "Now is not the time to panic."
I don't know if James will settle for jump shots again in Game 6, nor do I know if he'll make them this time. I have no idea if the Cavs' film study Wednesday offered any clues as to how they might prevent the Celtics from scoring 100 points in three quarters, as they did from quarters 2-4 in Game 5. Do I have any idea who will emerge as a legitimate scoring threat besides LeBron in the closeout game in Boston? Nope, couldn't even begin to guess.
But I understand how important this crossroads is for LeBron in his career –- not his business career, but his basketball career. And I'm equally confident he doesn't. Or at least, that he refuses to admit it.
This will be the fourth time the Cavs have faced playoff elimination on the road since the basketball gods smiled on them and they drafted the Chosen One from down the road in Akron. They're 0-3 so far, losing to Detroit, Boston and Orlando. It is this kind of crucible in which basketball legacies are forged, and LeBron's is being made right before his eyes. Just don't tell him that. I tried to tell him that Wednesday, and he responded by telling me, "You've got to be crazy."
That would be no news flash, but LeBron's convoluted answer to my question about his legacy and reputation being at stake was more profound than anything I have to say.
"I'm 25 years old and you're talking about reputation and legacy," James said. "C'mon man, I've got more years and a lot more time to play this game of basketball. As far as my reputation and my legacy, the only thing that I care about being a part of this league and being a part of this franchise or who I am is to help guys get better every day, lead guys and try to help guys understand that it's more than the game of basketball. For me, it's about legacy and things like that; those things are going to take care of themselves. Nobody can ever question what I do individually or what I've done in this short career. But if anyone has the right to question how I play on the court and what I do on the court, then I don't understand that."
Maybe it's not for him to understand yet. Maybe we expect too much. But the list of great players who've played a long time without winning a championship is long and worth studying. Depending on what transpires beginning at 8 p.m. ET Thursday night in Boston, LeBron's career could be roughly half over with the ring count at zero.
In Cleveland, where they've waited 46 years for a pro sports championship, seven years without a title is nothing. ("Forty-six years is a long time," observed Shaquille O'Neal, owner of four championship rings.) For a player who fancies himself as the next Michael, the next Kobe, a transcendent player who wants to exceed them both, time is never an ally. Time stands still for no one.
But don't worry, LeBron told Cleveland fans on Wednesday. You've got me. Soon enough, we find out what he meant by that.