Cavs' meltdown is most bitter heartache of all for Cleveland fans
By the final minute, it was clear the Cavaliers were going to lose to the Celtics
This heartache is about a team getting outworked and outplayed by old champs
Though LeBron had a triple-double, Clevelanders hope he rights this pathetic loss
The clock ticks down -- 56 seconds ... 55 seconds ... 54 seconds -- and Mike Brown waves his arms, and his players just stand there. They just bleeping stand there. You know they're not going to win. I know they're not going to win. Boston is beating Cleveland by nine, and that's too much. There are no miracles left, not for this disappointing Cleveland team, not for this wooden version of LeBron James. They are not going to win, not tonight. I know that, everybody knows that. But they just stand there. They just bleeping stand there.
"MOVE OR SOMETHING!" I hear myself shout.
Is this really how it ends? The Cavaliers players just stand there as the clock drains away -- now 51 seconds ... now 49 seconds ... now 47 seconds -- and even Mike Brown has stopped trying to wake the dead. He stands with his hands by his sides now, as defeated as his players. He can't even inspire them to foul.
There have been so many heartbreaking moments for us Cleveland fans ... each of them conveniently named so that they can be itemized when a Cleveland team loses yet again. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. Old timers will remember Willie Mays' catch. Youngsters will remember Joel Skinner, the third-base coach who held up Kenny Lofton. Each of those moments, and others without names, were so heart wrenching for a city that has not won a championship since 1964.
But at least none of those teams quit. Maybe they faded. Maybe they choked. Maybe they even fell apart. But to quit? No, teams don't really quit. As Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder said when his team was credited for playing until the end of a game: "They don't let you quit."
Only ... they're just standing out there. They quit. Forty-five seconds. Forty-four. Forty-three. The Cavaliers are just standing back, away from the Celtics, waiting for the time to expire so they can leave, waiting for this season to end, waiting like this is some pointless Tuesday night game against Milwaukee or Phoenix in December. They're just waiting to go home. Maybe they can't win. But what kind of team just waits for the sad ending? What kind of players give up on a season when there's still time left on the clock?
In less than a minute, the clock will run out, and everyone will be talking about LeBron James. Where will he go? That will be the talk. The New Yorkers will talk about how the only place for LeBron to play is at Madison Square Garden, and they will stir up the ghosts of Willis Reed, and they will talk up the lights and the action and Broadway and Fifth Avenue and if you can't make it there and Derek Jeter and Donald Trump and pretzels on street corners and all of it.
The Chicago people will talk about Michael Jordan and cap money and Derrick Rose and what it's like to have the loyal people of that city and the Chicago wind at your back. The Miami people will talk up South Beach, and the Los Angeles people will talk up Hollywood, and they will all circle like buzzards around another Cleveland Catastrophe. The world will become mad ambulance chasers.
"Hey, Akron's a fine place," some ESPN announcer will say. "Love that Soapbox Derby and all." Ha ha! Yes, they will mock Cleveland, sure they will. They will wonder why LeBron would possibly want to stay in his hometown, where he is loved, where he is world famous, where he represents something larger than sports. They will tell him that he can shake the Cleveland dust off his feet and come somewhere so much more exciting. Yes. All that is coming in just 42 seconds, and 41 seconds, and 40 seconds.
And still the Cavaliers players just stand around waiting for it.
The Cavaliers lose the game because they aren't good enough. That's a surprise. Going into Game 5 of the series, they looked plenty good enough. And then, in Game 5, they got annihilated. Exposed. LeBron himself drifted, like he couldn't muster the energy, like he was tired of the expectations or the burden or something. He played the worst playoff game of his life. "Let someone else do it," he seemed to be saying all night long. There was no one else. The Celtics won by 32.
There had always been doubters about this Cleveland team, about the way they were put together, about the purpose of Shaq and the defense of Antawn Jamison and the consistency of Mo Williams. There have always been doubters, but on this night, the realization suddenly slapped everyone in the face. This team has chemistry problems. This team has a coaching problem. This team has a heart problem. This team is built for regular-season basketball, when players are going at two-thirds speed and the pain of losing is dulled by the realization that there's another game in New Jersey tomorrow night. It's like everyone woke up at the same time and realized, as Jamal Mashburn would say on television, that "Cleveland is a facade."
And the guy at the center of thing was LeBron James -- the man who dared call himself King. He took a ferocious beating for his bad game. More than that, he took a ferocious beating for not being Michael Jordan and not being Kobe Bryant.
"I spoil people with my play," LeBron said afterward. That rubbed people the wrong way. Spoil people? He had been a part of zero championship teams. Spoil people? But maybe that was part of what he was saying. Maybe what LeBron meant was that he has been such a good basketball player that people expect too much from him. They expect him to be a basketball assassin like Michael and Kobe. They expect him to double his intensity for a big game. They expect him to take on three, four, even five men singlehandedly. Maybe, LeBron was saying he just doesn't have that stuff in him.
The clock keeps ticking -- 35 seconds, 34 seconds, 33 seconds -- and Boston's Paul Pierce finally takes a shot. Pierce had taken over the game when it was still in doubt -- making two free throws, then a three, then another three, taking Boston's lead from three to 12. That was when it mattered. Now it doesn't matter. He misses. The Cavaliers get the rebound. They walk the ball slowly up the court. There's no urgency, no rush, no point -- 30 seconds, 29 seconds, 28 seconds. They might not even take a shot. LeBron is on the court. He is nowhere near the ball.
LeBron's numbers are special. He scored 27 points and grabbed 19 rebounds and added 10 assists. The headline writers and local television anchors will undoubtedly say that Boston won despite LeBron's triple-double. "Despite" will be the key word. But it's probably not right word.
Even with those numbers, LeBron seemed oddly distant. He turned the ball over nine times. He shot 8 of 21. He too easily gave up the ball time and again so that Anderson Varejao and Delonte West and Jamison could miss shots. LeBron did not make this his game. He did not put himself on the line. He did make back-to-back three-pointers with just over nine minutes left to cut the Cavaliers' deficit to four. But that was it. He made one field goal and turned the ball over twice in those last nine minutes.
Everyone wants to know what LeBron is thinking. His face is so placid. Is he hurt? Angry? Or maybe he doesn't want to be the hero. He's so unselfish, such a good passer, so eager to make other look good -- maybe he wants a team that allows him to be himself. Maybe he resents this team that relies so much on him to take center stage. Maybe he doesn't like having 40-plus years of Cleveland agony heaped on his shoulders. Maybe he wants it to be easy.
With 16 seconds left, Anderson Varejao shoots a three-point shot. Varejao from three -- that's how the season will end. He misses, of course, and no Cavaliers players even try for the rebound and Kevin Garnett gets the ball. There are 14 seconds left, now 13, now 12, and already the Cavaliers players are shaking hands. In a few minutes, Mike Brown will sit in front the press and talk about how his players fought hard to the finish. He will have a straight face when he says it.
The last few seconds seem to last forever, like it's one of those slow-motion sports scenes at the end of a movie. Four seconds. Three seconds. Two seconds. One second. And then, finally, it ends. The players shake hands. LeBron James hugs Celtics players, whispers good thoughts in their ears, wishes everyone luck. This, apparently, speaks to his newfound maturity. Last year, when the Cavaliers lost to Orlando, James was so upset that he left the court without shaking hands, a poor bit of sportsmanship. James is now the ultimate sportsman. He hardly looks upset at all.
As he walks off the court, he half-heartedly high-fives a few fans. Then he takes off his Cavaliers jersey. Of course, the announcer wonders if it will be the last time that he ever does. I hope not, of course. I hope LeBron James stays in Cleveland, for many reasons, only a handful of them selfish. I hope he realizes that he doesn't need the bright lights -- he IS the bright lights, and the center of the sports world follows him wherever he goes. I hope LeBron James appreciates that no city will ever love him like Cleveland.
And I hope LeBron James looks back at the sad, even pathetic, way that this season ended and wants to make it right. In the end, though, LeBron's decision is for another time, and whatever he does you can't blame a man for following his heart. What's left of the wreckage of this night is another Cleveland heartache, though not quite like any of the previous Cleveland heartaches. This heartache has no catchy name like The Drive or Red Right 88. This heartache is just about a team getting outworked and outplayed by an old team of Boston champions. This heartache is about a Cleveland team that quit the first chance it had. This heartache is about the last minute of the season, when the Cleveland Cavaliers decided there was no point in trying anymore.
And in its own strange way, this heartache was the bitterest one of them all.
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