As the ad campaign centered on LeBron James said, we were “all witnesses” Thursday night. But it was not greatness that we witnessed.
Instead, those who watched the Celtics dispatch the Cleveland Cavaliers to clinch the Eastern Conference semifinal series witnessed the man long ago anointed the greatest player in the NBA turn in what can only be described as a disappointing performance.
Don’t allow the numbers to fool you.
On the stat sheet, LeBron’s 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists look like a terrific game.
But it was not King James on the court Thursday night. Not the man Sports Illustrated made a cover boy as a junior in high school, or the one who saw more ESPN cameras before his 18th birthday than the Los Angeles Clippers see in a decade.
Greatness takes over, particularly in basketball. But LeBron James was far from Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. Except for Game 3, James never took over in the series.
Fans jeered James as the Jumbotron showed the “History” tattoo on his leg. And now in his seventh and possibly final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, that history may be one of disappointment, with one NBA Finals appearance, and no titles.
“I didn’t play this season wondering about the offseason,” said James. “I played every game as hard as I could. It was never a factor.”
But fans can be forgiven for having some doubt about that statement.
As the game wore on, LeBron appeared more and more passive with the ball. He frequently passed up open looks and opportunities to drive to the lane, kicking the ball out to far-inferior outside shooters. That at times while being guarded by the likes of Tony Allen and 7-footer Kevin Garnett.
James shot just 4 of 9 from the field in the second half, two of which were 3-pointers within 23 seconds of each other and one was a dunk with 2:07 left. And while much of the blame was being passed onto his supporting cast, point guard Mo Williams played the game of his life with 22 points (20 in the first half) and seven rebounds.
With those misses came some sloppy play, including a whopping nine turnovers for James.
Rasheed Wallace all but clinched the victory with 1:18 left, when James threw an errant pass right into Wallace’s chest, and the Celtics were about to eat away the clock after that.
James hardly passed center court on the final possession of the game, allowing the final seconds to tick off the clock.
When asked about James’ effort following the game, former Cleveland coach Mike Brown only stated his “entire team” played until the finish.
James took a beating from the Boston crowd, which chanted “New York Knicks” — the team many expect the 25-year-old free agent will sign with in the offseason — during his free throw attempts. One fan even brought a giant cardboard cutout of James’ head with a tear going down his cheek.
“We have to go home now,” said longtime Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. “Who knows what’s going to happen with this team. It could be the last time together for a lot of us. You’ve got to take your shots and move one. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
The question now is whether this was Cleveland’s final shot with James in a Cavs uniform.
“I approached the game with the right mindset,” said James. “I was making no plans about the future. I make no excuses. The shots didn’t fall for me.”
But Cleveland fans have the right to wonder. This was supposed to be the season that James brought Cleveland a long awaited title, its first in any major sport in a whopping 46 years. But, in the end, King James bowed out to a Celtics team long ago written off.
“Guarding LeBron James for six games is brutal,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “He’s just a monster. And I’m so proud of our guys because they accepted it as a group. That’s why I’m so happy for them.”
And whether it was the Celtics, an elbow injury or simply impending free agency, the unthinkable occurred. LeBron James was shut down.
David Wiliams writes for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.