CLEVELAND -- "Dire straits" -- it ain't
just the name of a '80s rock band.
Those two words describe the disintegrating
fortunes of LeBron James and the Cavaliers. To say they resemble what AIG
looked like 15 months ago wouldn't exaggerate their present state, and after
their 120-88 loss Tuesday night to the Celtics, the Cavs might look more like
Enron than they do AIG.
Life on the brink isn't what their fans had
envisioned, not for these Cavaliers. Yet that's where they find
themselves today. James, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Shaquille O'Neal and the rest
of their gang are a loss away from witnessing their sugar-coated dreams of an
NBA championship turn into the latest edition of nightmare on Elm Street. They
have learned the hard way that dreams can be made and unmade like a Murphy bed.
And who do they and coach Mike Brown blame for the
unmaking of theirs?
Trotting the blame game out again serves no purpose anymore. The fact is these Cavaliers have been outplayed and outhustled through most of this series, which is why they trail the Celtics, 3-2. One game from elimination, the Cavs head into Game 6 in Boston, the graveyard for championship aspirations for any team that doesn't have "Celtics" stitched across the front of its jersey.
It's been an uneasy trek to the cliff's edge. One thing displayed itself early in this best-of-seven series: The seasoned Celtics know how to win; the Cavaliers don't. For all the experiences the Cavs have acquired over the past four years, James & Co. has never been able to fill in all the pieces to what is a championship puzzle.
Thus far, the Cavaliers have indicated completing that puzzle might be impossible. All the pieces were supposed to be on the table in front of them, but having the pieces without the desire and determination to see the task to its completion are different concerns altogether.
Nobody can look inside a player's heart and see what drives him to excel.
In this case, what might have driven the Cavaliers to their ignoble performance are expectations too nerve-wracking for them to handle. They are playing tight -- playing as tight as the eyelids of a man in a deep sleep. The daring and razzle-dazzle that had marked their play in the regular season have vanished. They are mimicking what the Hawks did against the Magic, which means the Cavs aren't playing championship-caliber basketball.
They are failing on so many fronts.
Take their performance in the loss tonight. Do an autopsy on this loss, and you'll find the same problems that undid the Cavs in Games 1 and 4: an inability to stop Rajon Rondo and their unwillingness to unleash Shaquille O'Neal inside. Game after game, James and his teammates have lacked consistency. They have had short stretches in which they have looked like legitimate contenders for a title. Game 3 proved what the Cavaliers can do when everything is in sync.
The Celtics countered that performance in Game 4 with tough defense and multi-prong offense. They have created, nurtured and summarily devised an approach that has stolen the momentum, momentum that looked as if it had twisted in the direction of the Cavaliers.
"We played awful," James said.
Trailing in a 3-2 series is a crater he and his teammates might not be able to climb out of it. They could be on the sidelines already had they not stolen a victory in Game 2, a game that surely belonged in their loss column.
For them, it's lose-and-go-home time in this series. The machismo they brought into the playoffs has disappeared, replaced with fistful of doubt and a dash of uncertainty.
Frustration has etched itself in their faces, making the Cavaliers an SNL parody of a team that longs to be great but doesn't want to work to achieve greatness. Bring Betty White to the sidelines as its coach. Might as well.
Her humor would make this not-ready-for-prime-time skit more palatable to watch. Fans are looking at a team that has made peace with its inadequacies. Dare to be great isn't in this team's makeup, not with a superstar whose play Tuesday bordered on timid and role players who sweated under the spotlight.
"Never let 'em see you sweat," the old ad said.
Too late for that message to sink in.
Inside this NBA pressure cooker, James and his sidekicks have sweated a river, which is why talk about their fortunes mentions the words dire straits. In this walk of life, that isn't tune they wanted to be rockin' 'n' rollin' to. They can always listen to that music in that glass-and-steel museum on the other side of downtown.