By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010; D03
INDEPENDENCE, OHIO -- His back was against the wall -- albeit a padded, cushioned wall at the Cleveland Cavaliers' practice facility -- and LeBron James was uncomfortable and agitated. He leaned back, fidgeted and frowned as he responded to questions the morning after a horrific performance against the Boston Celtics put his team within one loss from elimination from the NBA playoffs.
James suffered postseason disappointment before, but he was in an unfamiliar position on Wednesday: Some observers wondering if the could-be King and free-agent-to-be already has one foot out the door; fans who worshipped his every move suddenly booing him; and the bulk of the criticism for the Cavaliers' 3-2 deficit in this best-of-seven series falling on him.
The two-time league most valuable MVP didn't understand the panic after he scored just 15 points on 3-of-14 shooting as the Cavaliers suffered a franchise-record 32-point home loss on Monday. He grew angry when he was asked how the result of this series could affect his legacy.
"You got to be crazy. I'm 25 years old and you're talking about reputation and legacy," James said as his team prepared to head to Boston for Game 6 on Thursday. "C'mon, man, I got more years and a lot more time to play this game of basketball. For me, 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."
James and the Cavaliers are 0-3 when facing elimination on the road. They lost to the Detroit Pistons in Game 7 at the Palace of Auburn Hills in the second round in 2006; to the Celtics in Game 7 in the second round in 2008; and to the Orlando Magic in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last season, when James famously left the arena without shaking hands with his opponents or speaking with reporters afterward. The loss to the Orlando was the only time that Cleveland entered the series as the prohibitive favorite.
When asked why Cavaliers fans should feel confident that his team -- which finished with the NBA's best regular season record for the second year in a row -- could deliver a road victory on Thursday, James assuredly replied, "They got me."
But the question now is which James will they get? James has been stellar in Cleveland's two wins and subpar in its three losses to the Celtics. The losses in Games 2, 4 and 5 all came with just one day of rest, with him scoring just 61 points, making 17 of 47 (36.2 percent) of his shots and missing all 13 of his three-point attempts. In the two victories, which came after at least two days' rest, James scored 73 points and made 26 of 46 (56.5) of his field goal attempts.
James experienced a flare-up in his strained right elbow in the previous round against Chicago but said he wouldn't use his injury as an excuse. He cupped his left hand around his elbow for a few seconds before entering a spirited shooting competition after practice on Wednesday with teammates Daniel Gibson, Anthony Parker and Danny Green. He shook his arm, getting out the kinks, before taking his first shot. "The elbow is an issue I'll deal with in the offseason," he said.
Boston, the champion once removed, has devised a solid scheme to keep James from attacking the rim with regularity in the past two games. But James has aided the Celtics with tentative and indecisive play. During the 120-88 loss on Tuesday, James seemed disengaged and distant and carried a nonchalant attitude to the podium afterward, when he said that he had "spoiled" people with his play over his career. He tried to maintain a similar demeanor on Wednesday.
"You don't know if I'm angry or not," James said. "I'm not going to show you that I'm angry. Guys follow my lead. If I come out here and panic and be like, 'Guys, we lost by 30 and we don't know what to do,' that's not right. It's not who I am, and it's never been who I am. You may look at me right now and say you don't see anger. I just don't show it."
Shaquille O'Neal said James is "one of the best" leaders he's ever played with, and said it's up to the "others" to perform better. "We all know what's at stake here," O'Neal said. "LeBron wants to win the whole thing. We all want to win the whole thing. We just have to make him look good."
With James entering free agency this summer, there are concerns about how much longer he will be with the organization. "I don't think that way. I can't," James said. "It makes no sense for me to look that way or say this potentially could be my last game here or could be our last game in Cleveland. I'm looking forward to Game 6 and we'll see how that plays out.
"When you go out and you have a bar set so high for yourself and you don't do that every single night, they can have a bad one, they can talk about you and say 'the elbow' and 'he wasn't this' or 'he wasn't that.' I'm okay with accepting it," he said. "I just need to play well individually. But I think it's not just me, it's everyone. I put a lot of pressure on myself, of course. 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."