By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; D06
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James sat on the bench, scrunched up his face with a look that revealed both shock and anger, and then he nervously chewed on his fingernails as the final three of minutes of one of the worst playoff performances of his career played out. With fuming fans flooding the exits and expressing their frustration with boos, James was a reluctant spectator for the finish of what could possibly serve as his last home game at Quicken Loans Arena -- the Akron native is eligible to become a free agent this summer and the Cleveland Cavaliers are on the brink of elimination after an embarrassing 120-88 loss on Tuesday.
For a city that knows playoff disappointment as well as it knows cloudy days, the level of angst in Cleveland was palpable as the Boston Celtics, the champions once-removed, took a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series with an opportunity to complete the upset of the NBA's top overall seed on Thursday at TD Garden.
"We've done nothing," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "We've won three games. We have to win four."
Before the game, Rivers was asked if the Big Three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce had passed the torch to point guard Rajon Rondo, who Sunday became to first player in more than 40 years to finish with at least 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in a playoff game and joined the exclusive company of Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. But on Tuesday, Rondo passed it right back, as he let the future Hall-of-Fame trio lead the Celtics to their most dominant outing of the postseason. Allen hit six three-pointers and led all scorers with 25 points. Pierce finally woke up after going mostly silent for the first four games and added 21 points, a game-high 11 rebounds and 7 assists, and Kevin Garnett had 18 points.
"That's the beauty of our team," said Pierce, who entered Game 5 averaging just below 12 points per game. "It makes us so dangerous. When you look at Cleveland, you know you've got to stop LeBron. With us, any number of guys -- we've got four or five guys who can lead us in scoring. You never know where it's going to come from."
The Cavaliers desperately needed James to have monster performance but the two-time league's most valuable player came up lame, as he missed his first eight field goals and finished with just 15 points on 3-for-14 shooting. James appeared disinterested for most of the night as he settled for lazy jumpers, rarely attacked the rim, and was satisfied setting up his teammates though many of them seemed scared to shoot.
"It is unlike him," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said. "He had an off night, which is abnormal."
Staggering from a surprising Rondo-inspired onslaught in the previous game, the Cavaliers and James also dealt with whispers that the man who made the franchise -- and this city -- relevant again could possibly be gone if the team fails to win a championship. James's pending free agency has had this town on edge for some time, and he has only fueled those worries with his coy responses to questions about his desire to stay. Some fans were so concerned that they paid for a billboard just outside of the arena that reads, "Born here. Raised here. Plays here. Stays here."
The catastrophic performance did nothing but contribute to that lack of security. "I didn't think about that," James said of possibly playing his final home game in Cleveland. "Game 6 is a huge game for us. Game 5 was huge for us. We just didn't play particularly well. Me sitting up here and saying this is potentially my last game here, that wouldn't be me, wouldn't be our team."
For now, the more immediate concern is for the Cavaliers to avoid another collapse after finishing with best record in the NBA for the second season in a row -- and whether James is seriously injured. James claimed his strained right elbow was fine and proved it with a stellar showing in Game 3, when he outscored the Celtics, 21-17, in the first quarter and finished with 38 points as Cleveland gave Boston its worst home playoff loss in franchise history. But he has scored just 37 points in the past two games.
"It felt good, I don't have a problem with that," said James of his elbow, while crediting the Celtics' defense for his awful outing. "You don't see that out of me a lot, but when it happens, it's a big surprise. I've had three bad games in seven years."
Shaquille O'Neal led the Cavaliers with 21 points and Anthony Parker added 14, but James didn't record his first field goal until six minutes, 15 seconds were left in the third period, a fastbreak dunk that brought the Cavaliers within 65-52. The Celtics then scored the next eight points, with Allen nailing a three-pointer -- his third of the third period -- to give the Celtics a 21-point lead and cap a 23-8 run to start the quarter.
"We haven't been great in the third quarter during the regular season, but our focus has been great in the playoffs," Allen said. "Execution is what we pride ourselves on. [But] we're not celebrating, because we haven't won anything."
The Cavaliers were determined that Rondo would not have a repeat of his incredible performance in Game 4, and James even spent some time guarding him in the first half. But with Cleveland focused on Rondo, Pierce was much more forceful as he scored five points, including a three-point play to cap a 16-0 run that turned a 29-21 deficit into a 37-29 lead with 4:02 remaining in the second period. The game-altering run came with Rondo on the bench.
After going scoreless in the first half, Rondo finished with 16 points and seven assists. Glen "Big Baby" Davis came off the bench to add 15 points, with 12 coming in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics outscored the Cavaliers 40-25 and forced the home fans to boo incessantly. "I'm not worried about it," James said of the deficit. "It's a really good team that we're going against. You would hope to be up 3-2, but we're not. The next opportunity is this Thursday."