By Michael Wilbon
Friday, May 14, 2010; D01
It's inexplicable that in the final minutes, with the clock ticking down, the Cleveland Cavaliers would just let it all expire. No fouls, no desperation, no three-point heaves. They just let it go, the season and perhaps the future. Tick, tick, tick, gone. A wrap. The end. No stopping the clock, no one last timeout. If they didn't give up they certainly gave out.
Wow. They weren't ready to win a championship, as it turns out, not the great LeBron James and not the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They played hard enough through most of the game, even cutting a 12-point deficit to four on James's daring back-to-back three-pointers. It looked then as if he had the stuff of Magic and Bird, of Jordan and Duncan.
But the outburst was brief, a sputter. This can't be about only LeBron James; an entire coaching staff and locker room full of players paid a lot of money let this happen. Mark Jackson, the ESPN analyst who played forever in this league, said at the end of the telecast of Game 6 that he was disappointed that the Cavaliers appeared to quit before it was over, simply surrender. They were, once again, dispirited in those final few minutes, defeated, overwhelmed.
But it is largely about LeBron because the history and culture of the NBA have made it that the buck stops with the superstar, particularly when he is the reigning two-time league MVP and by general acclaim the best player in the game. I was confident LeBron would post a triple-double in Game 6, and he did -- 27, 19 and 10, or what we in the trade now call "almost Rondo numbers." But who knew nine turnovers would nearly make it a quadruple-double.
He fumbled the ball, stumbled, was hesitant and indecisive. Yeah, there were brilliant moments, such as after a fourth-quarter timeout when he powered through a Rasheed Wallace foul and tossed one in left-handed off the glass with spin.
Problem was, Cleveland needed a half-dozen of those plays and at least an entire half of the kind of determination we've seen out of James for years.
Then again, the regular season and the playoffs are different animals. The freewheeling, outside-in method that works for James and the Cavs from November through early April ain't the formula for success in May, when a bunch of skilled mashers like the Celtics decide there will be no wheeling and dealing, certainly nothing free.
James seemed lethargic, without his usual blast furnace of energy, as if after seven years he simply buckled under the weight of being the hometown icon. He seemed, again, overwhelmed, boxed in by the expectations, by the specter of free agency and his pending decision.
For months, James kept the whole free agency issue at arm's length. But lately, it seemed to be gaining on him; maybe it all caught up with him.
There was Jay-Z, part owner of the Nets, sitting at midcourt in Boston the other night, making goo-goo eyes at LeBron. There was John Calipari sitting courtside one night, rumors flying that he'd love to coach his former college star, Derrick Rose, and LeBron in Chicago.
When James was in high school, as early as his junior year, the locals dared dream that a kid who had grown up right there in northeast Ohio could save the Cavaliers. In fact, he could make up, some thought, for all of Cleveland's past sporting failures, from Michael Jordan's "the Shot" over Craig Ehlo to John Elway's "the Drive" to beat the Browns to Jose Mesa's inability to close out the World Series for the Indians to Earnest Byner's "the Fumble."
It's possible no athlete has ever come into the professional ranks with so much expected of him. In this case, the assignment was essentially to save his home town, to win with a team that had never won, in a city whose teams haven't won in decades. Elway, as smothered as he was in Denver in the early years, didn't grow up in the Rockies feeling obliged. Chicagoans paid attention to Michael Jordan only after he started winning.
LeBron and Cleveland appeared to be a match made in heaven, the best young athlete on the planet for the city in the greatest need of a superstar. He was a beast in the playoffs by the age of 21, had led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals by 22, was the league MVP by 24. The craziest of the sycophants had him ahead of Michael Jordan at the same age, ahead of Kobe. This was going to end happily.
Of course, we live in a world now where these things are simply declared, as if wishing or hyping it can make it so. Leading the Cavaliers to an NBA championship might be the basketball equivalent of leading the Chicago Cubs to a World Series title. It, by necessity, is going to be difficult, carrying a team and a city through not only worthy opponents such as the Celtics and Magic and Lakers, but the years and decades of disappointment.
The question now is whether the two will even be paired any longer. The disappointment from the loss to the Boston Celtics in six games and the summer of discontent to follow are going to make for a long, cold summer on the shores of Lake Erie. Cleveland lost again, despite having the best team in the NBA again. All those regular season wins over the last two seasons, all those games that felt like revival meetings at the Q in downtown Cleveland, all of it just might have gone to waste.
With three minutes to play, the fans in Boston began taunting LeBron by chanting "New York Knicks." And that might as well have been the official start of the free agent madness. While Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Carlos Boozer, and perhaps Dirk Nowitzki and Amare Stoudemire could all be wooed, LeBron is the big prize. But there are questions now that didn't exist before this series, such as whether something is missing from either LeBron's game (doubtful) or his makeup (possible).
Perhaps the Cavaliers simply lost to a better team, one where the core players all wear championship rings from just two years ago. The Celtics may prove to be all the Orlando Magic can handle, and if they make it all the way back to the NBA Finals, perhaps we'll have to reconsider all the conclusions we're drawing now.
But at this moment, LeBron's future is unthinkably uncertain and it probably will be for the next six weeks. Cleveland has agonized before but never like this. Imagine a young Cal Ripken leaving Baltimore without a championship for the Orioles. The despair can be felt from New York to Los Angeles, two places where LeBron could wind up. His despair might be cushioned by a soft landing place, a nest feathered with millions of dollars. Cleveland's despair, especially if their favorite son flies the coop, might just go on and on and on.