If it feels like we’ve seen this before from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s because we have.
LeBron and the Cavs are heading home down 2-0 to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals and need a spark to get back into the series. It’s foolish to doubt James’ ability to will his team back into a series, and Boston has been anything but a sure thing on the road this spring.
But if the Cavs can’t erase that deficit, we’re probably looking at the end of The King’s second reign in Cleveland. And if that’s the case, the end of Act 2 is strikingly similar to the opener.
James is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract this summer. Some think he’s destined to become a Los Angeles Laker; others believe James will trust the process and sign with the Philadelphia 76ers. But you’d be hard-pressed to find those who predict he’ll stay in Cleveland.
James’ escape plan is already being drawn up. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, aka “the LeBron whisperer”, laid it all out Wednesday.
“The Cavs aren’t just battling the ascendant Celtics,” Windhorst wrote, “they are battling an enemy that has dogged LeBron James teams in the past: It’s organizational fatigue, and it’s very real.”
He continued: “The players get sick of one another. They get sick of the coach. The coach gets sick of the players. As a group, they lose sight of the process of the season because it becomes monotonous. There are highs — with James teams there are always highs — but the baggage everyone is carrying makes the flight that much harder to maintain.”
Yikes. Doesn’t really inspire a whole lot of confidence in the Cavs making a comeback, does it?
“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m not going to lose sleep over it. You go out and when you lay everything on the line, at the end of the day, you can live with that. I’ll recalibrate as far as how I can help this team continue to be successful, how I can do some things to make us be even more complete.”
Maybe it’s a defense mechanism of sorts. Or maybe James sees the writing on the wall and already is trying to downplay the importance of one game, so it doesn’t seem as bad when the Celtics send him packing. It almost sounds like he’s content with his fate. Only he really knows, but his words aren’t terribly inspiring.
Then there’s James’ play. Yes, he bounced back from a miserable Game 1 performance with a 42-point triple-double. On the surface, that seems really good, and it is really good, but could it have been better? James scored 21 points in the first quarter and scored “only” 21 points over the next three quarters. Again, not bad, but James was settling for jump shots and really didn’t get to the rim in the way we’ve seen him do in the past. The Celtics deserve some of the credit for that, but James had the chance to take the game over — and he didn’t.
Defensively, James wasn’t any better. He didn’t show much interest in fighting through screens, and he was late to help in the lane. On one play late in the third quarter, he showed utter disinterest in closing out on Terry Rozier and even making the slightest attempt to bother the Celtic’s guard’s shot attempt. He also had a wonderful view of Marcus Smart’s offensive rebound and put-back that gave Boston a double-digit lead midway through the fourth.
In fairness to James, he never really looked the same after suffering a neck strain earlier in the game. But he returned and downplayed the injury as an issue, so we have to assume he was good to go.
So, if James is not going to give his best effort, you can bet J.R. Smith or Rodney Hood or anyone else on the Cleveland roster won’t either … especially if everyone already knows he’s got one foot out the door.
Which brings us back to our original point: We’ve seen this before. The Celtics unceremoniously ended James’ original Cleveland stint with a six-game series win in 2010. A couple months later, James bolted for Miami, leading Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert to issue a now-infamous letter to Cavs fans.
“He quit,” Gilbert stated. “Not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar.”
The same thing could be happening this year. It’s still too early to tell, and a pair of Cavs wins in Cleveland ultimately might make this point moot.
But the Celtics have a chance to repeat history, and just as notable, put James out of his apparent misery.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images