Game 5 Debacle: If It Was LeBron’s Last In Cleveland, Who Could Blame Him?

I hate doing this.

I hate jumping to conclusions and passing judgement, and pointing fingers after tough losses. I hate blaming superstars and calling for coach’s heads, and for the lack of a better term, acting like a selfish and spoiled fan.

What I do like is being logical, thought out and well-reasoned before I share my opinions. But after the Cavaliers 120-88 loss to Boston on Tuesday night, in a game that defied all logic and reason, I’m out of answers and need to start asking questions. Like is LeBron who we thought he was? Are the Cavaliers who we thought they were? And unless Mike Brown has incriminating photos of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert with 14-year-old Thai boys, how the hell does he still have a job?

Now before I go any further, I think it’s important to note that I’m not really a Cavs fan, but find myself rooting for them. They’re the only team I watch much of during the regular season, basically because, well, LeBron is must-see TV. As far as I’m concerned, he, along with Peyton Manning are the only two athletes of the last decade who you can’t afford to miss, because on any given night, they might do something you’ve never seen before.

I’m also rooting for Cleveland, because I know how much a championship would mean to a city with three major sports teams, that hasn’t hoisted a victory trophy since 1964. Seriously, think about that. If you’re old enough to remember and appreciate Cleveland’s last championship, there’s a good chance you’re either in your 60’s or dead right now, neither of which leaves you with much of a proposition of seeing another title in your lifetime. Especially with the Indians giving away talent like a Macy’s, “Everything Must Go Sale,” and the Browns entering….cough…the Jake Delhomme era. The Cavs are the best shot you’ve got for a heck of a long time, and I’ve got to be honest, things aren’t looking particularly rosy.

Finally, I’m rooting for the Cavaliers because of LeBron himself. I’m never met the guy, and I’d say there’s a pretty reasonable chance I never do. Yet I’ve always felt a weird connection to him since we’re basically the same age, and graduated high school the same year. I’ve always admired the fact that while all my friends and I were doing the really dumb stuff that all 17, 18, 19 and 20-year-olds do, LeBron always stayed out of trouble. James has had a camera on him everywhere he’s gone since he was 16, and what’s the worst thing any of us can remember him saying or doing? To the best of my knowledge, I think he got a speeding ticket once like four years ago. Uhh ohh, somebody alert the presses.

So with that background, let’s get back to Tuesday night. Yes I was rooting for the Cavaliers, and quite honestly, yes I expected them to win.

Early on, they looked fine to me. Sure LeBron wasn’t being supper-aggressive with the ball, but then again, I’ve seen enough Cleveland games to know that it might actually have been a good thing. It reminded me of a Cavs regular season game, where the other team comes out hell bent on stopping LeBron, and he responds by driving the lane and hitting open cutters and shooters. In those games, Cleveland methodically builds a first half lead, cruises the last two quarters, and James finishes with a ho-hum stat-line that looks something like 23 points, eight rebounds and 11 asssits in a 14 point victory. I’ve seen that exact scenario play out 100 times before, and thought I was seeing it again Tuesday night. When Cleveland jumped out to a 29-21 lead with 9:52 left in the second quarter, I was certain of it.

But even as the Cavs built that lead, Mike Brown continued to make weird, head-scratching coaching decisions, like he’s been doing basically during his entire run in Cleveland. There was his insistence on keeping Shaq in the game, even as the big guy continued to fire up bricks that looked more like C.C. Sabathia 93 mph fastballs than they did hook shots. There was Brown’s even more bizarre decision to put Zydrunas Ilgauskas in to replace Shaq. Look, I’m as much of a “Big Z,” fan as anyone, but come on, he’d only played five minutes the entire series coming into Game 5, and none in the last three games. Now you’re asking a guy who can’t run, jump, defend or rebound to come in and guard Kevin Garnett? I’m a little confused.

Later on there was the lineup that featured Mo Williams, Delonte West and Anthony Parker, which would have been fine if you were trying to win the Sectionals in the Iowa High School State Tournament, and not an NBA Playoff game. I’m no expert, but when you’ve got three guards under 6’4 trying to defend guys like Ray Allen (6’4 and athletic), Paul Pierce (6’6) and Tony Allen (6’8), I’m guessing it’s not going to work out in your favor. Beyond that, wouldn’t it make just a bit more sense to try and defend slower, smarter guys like Pierce and Allen with longer, more athletic guys like Antawn Jamison and Jamario Moon? Isn’t that why you traded for Jamison in the first place? Call me old-fashioned, but I think it could have worked.

And it was when Brown started playing musical chairs with his lineup, that the Cavs began losing that eight point lead. Garnett continued to abuse Shaq and Big Z, and Pierce did much the same to whichever 6’3 umpa-lumpa was guarding him on that particular play.

Of course just as the Celtics offense started to get hot, the Cavaliers turned to mush. Guys stopped moving, and when they did it was usually to the wrong place. LeBron tried to no avail to drive into three or four Boston defenders, and when he did dish it, his teammates weren’t in a position to shoot or score. Just about the only thing Cleveland did right in the last few minutes of the first half, was bring in Anderson Varejao (You know, tough, young and athletic) off the bench, who proceeded to play like he always does: Grabbing rebounds, diving on the floor for loose balls, and it was he, that was the biggest reason why Cleveland was able to keep their halftime deficit of 50-44 manageable.

With the intermission rolling around, I didn’t have nearly the same confidence from a few minutes before, but still thought the Cavs would win. It seemed obvious that their best lineup was with Varejao on the court reaking havoc and crashing the boards, and with Big Z and Shaq as far down the bench as Cleveland could possibly put them. Honestly, Brown could have sent them back to the locker room for the rest of the game, or hit them hit over the head with a shovel and buried each behind Quicken Loans Arena for all I cared. Just as long as they didn’t see the court.

So of course what did Brown to do start the second half? Put Varejao back on the bench, and sent a wheezing, chubby, can’t fit into his XXXXXXXXXXL jersey Shaq back into the game. So much for halftime adjustments.

And that’s when all hell broke loose. For those of you who watched, I won’t rehash the painful events, but that 50-44 lead quickly ballooned, and it got ugly. Let me put it another way: By the time that Cleveland reached Boston’s halftime total of 50, Boston had already scored 13 points in the second half, and was continuing to lay it on heavy. Everything was going right. Rondo continued to abuse Mo Williams offensively, and Pierce, Allen and Garnett did much the same to whomever was defending them. Basically if you missed it, the Celtics turned into the Harlem Globetrotters. All they needed was the red, white and blue basketball.

All the while Cleveland continued to tighten up and so did their fans. Honestly I’ve never seen the air leave a build quite like it did at Quicken Loans Tuesday night.

And just when it didn’t seem like it could get worse, Brown’s, Shooter from “Hoosiers,” coaching display got even worse. At least in Shooter’s defense he was drunk. I don’t think we can say the same about Brown. I don’t think.

Brown continued to run Shaq out there, and while he got a couple of easy baskets, brought nothing to the table defensively. Shaq was replaced AGAIN by Big Z, which at this point was indefensible. Again, Illgauskas is a 7’3 set shooter that slows down the game, and can’t rebound or defend. By then, the Cavs were down by 20 points. Why was Varejao on the bench? Why not roll the dice with J.J. Hickson or Moon? Again, you’re down 20 points, you want to speed up the game. Not slow it down for an over the hill center who can’t finish in the paint!

Finally, there was the almost comical move of bringing in Daniel “Boobie,” Gibson off the bench, a guy who I thought got shipped to a Siberian gulag at the All-Star break. But hey, when you’ve already got three guards playing who can’t defend their man, what’s the harm in bringing in a fourth? By the end of the third quarter it really didn’t matter anyway.

And when O’Neal re-entered the game early in the final period, I’d had enough. To quote my buddy John, “I can’t…I just can’t” (His favorite saying for anything that is so illogical that it defies words in the actual English language). Again, why sub in a beluga whale who needs 15 seconds to get his shot off when you’re down by 25 and time is running out? Good coaching buddy.

The rest, as the kids say is history. 120-88. And maybe the last game LeBron plays in Cleveland as a Cavalier.

Speaking of which, let’s get back to LeBron for a second. Now I know most of you are thinking, “Aaron, where’s the blame for LBJ?” And you’re right.

It was probably the worst game I’ve ever seen him play, in maybe the most important one of his career. While he was passive-aggressive early (Making plays, deferring to teammates, not scoring much), he was just plain passive late, almost going out of his way to avoid shots when the Cavs needed him to take over. It was an incredibly disappointing effort, and to a very large degree embarrassing both for James, and simply to watch as a spectator. Honestly, I’d like to say the whole thing was like a car crash, ugly and impossible to look away from, but that’d be an understatement. What it really was, was seeing your grandma come out of the shower naked: Alarming, disturbing, and potentially altering the way you view things forever.

Then again, I can’t place all the blame on James. He can’t defend all five guys on the court, and can’t do much if he puts his teammates in a position score and they don’t finish. It doesn’t help that this particular group seems to cower from the bright lights rather than embrace them. Sure Williams and Jamison are happy and making shots when LeBron gets 20 in the first quarter, but where are they when LeBron needs someone else to step up? They disappear faster then Tiger Woods’ dignity at an iHop.

Also, here’s another dirty little secret that I don’t hear many talking about: If Cleveland somehow were to pull out a miracle and win this title (Vegas odds being about approximately 70 billion-1 right now), I’ve got to ask you, would there have ever been a championship team with a worse “second player,” then whoever LeBron is saddled with this year?

Nobody wins titles with the likes of Jamison, Williams and Shaq as their fellow starters, not even the best.

Kobe had Pau Gasol last year, and an under 450 lb. Shaq back at the beginning of the last decade. Tim Duncan had David Robinson early and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker late. Magic had varying degrees of Kareem. Larry Bird was surrounded with All-Stars the way that Hugh Hefner is surrounded by 19-year-old blondes. And that Jordan guy? Many NBA people believe that Scottie Pippen was the second best player in the league at the time they were winning titles together in Chicago.

LeBron’s got, umm… Mo Williams. But hey, he made an All-Star team last year! (Even if it was as a replacement.)

Beyond that, how can you blame LeBron for the fact that his coach is a total buffoon? That he doesn’t know that someone like Jamario Moon would defend Paul Pierce better than someone like Delonte West? That J.J. Hickson can run and jump, two things integral to the sport of basketball that escaped Ilgauskas a decade ago. How would you feel if you knew you were twice as smart as your boss? Annoyed right? I tweeted this on Tuesday night, and I’ll ask the same of you now: If Mike Brown disappeared before Game 5 and LeBron was named player/coach, would Cleveland have lost any worse then they did on Tuesday? It’s Brown’s job to motivate and prepare his team, and he did neither in Game 5.

Quite honestly, if I was Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, I’d have fired Brown after the third quarter on Thursday night. Walked right over to the bench, shook his hand, thanked him for getting us this far, handed him a pink slip, and given LeBron the clipboard.

If Gilbert wanted to be more diplomatic, he could have waited until the end of the game to fire Brown, but that should have been it. Don’t let Brown on the team charter back to Boston. Take the keys to his company car, and the nameplate on the front door of his office. To put it another way, remember the scene in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, where the Grinch takes everything out of a house, leaves, then sneaks back down the chimney to take the last Christmas crumb from a mouse? That should have been Brown’s office by 8 a.m. Wednesday, not even a crumb in sight.

Of course in the end, Brown kept his job, even as Cleveland creeps toward elimination. Game 6 is in Boston on Thursday night, and even the most optimistic of Cavaliers fans knows that the season is coming to a screeching halt.

And as crazy as it sounds, we very well could have seen LeBron’s last game in Cleveland in a Cavaliers uniform on Tuesday night.

But if it was James’ last game, from what you saw, could you blame him for never wanting to come back?

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.