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Understanding the intricacies of LeBron's Game 5 letdown

May 12, 2010, 11:21 AM EDT

lebron celtics game 5.pngLeBron James had a rough Tuesday night. He shot 3-of-14 from the field as his team struggled to escape from under the heel of the Boston Celtics. Cleveland lost by 32 points on their home court, and when that happens to the best team in the league (record-wise, at least) boasting the best player in the league, the people will demand answers.

How could this happen? And why?

The how part is slightly easier to figure out, as behind LeBron’s very poor performance was a team of highly-paid bystanders. James had an off-night in terms of execution, focus, and effort, but this team is theoretically constructed to withstand that. In fact, plenty of players are being compensated very well to ensure that this very thing doesn’t happen. The acquisitions of Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison were supposed to make this situation avoidable, yet when James turned in a sub-par game on the Cavs home court, those teammates — which were rumored to be a championship-level cast — vanished as well.

For further analysis on that topic, I’ll defer to FanHouse’s Tom Ziller:

Completely putting the blame on LeBron here…masks very real issues. The Celtics play absurdly good defense and match up particularly well against James. Williams can’t guard a single person on the Boston roster. Jamison, O’Neal, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas still aren’t comfortable with each other on offense or defense, and the Celtics’ scorers are hitting some tough shots in this series. It’s not like LeBron is shooting 3-14 against folding chairs. Boston had the league’s No. 5 defense this season, despite a year filled with injuries to key cogs. And with so few Cavaliers scoring with any efficiency, the Celtics have been able to send two good defenders at LeBron as soon as he makes his move. (Despite that, James had 12 free throws and seven assists Tuesday.)

On one hand, it’s tough to entirely blame those, like Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who set out to crucify James after they witnessed him make frequent defensive mistakes, float on the offensive end, and hoist his fair share of errant jumpers. He’s the best player in the sport, and he’s supposed to play accordingly in the playoffs.

Ziller notes that LeBron’s Game 5 isn’t as simple as many media reactions indicate, and he’s right; to deny the significance of Boston’s defensive brilliance and the futility of James’ teammates is to ignore a crucial part of the story here.

The Celtics are no slouches on the defensive end, and while their first round series against the Heat may not have provided the best example given Miami’s limited offense, the enduring effectiveness of Boston’s D over the course of the regular season is beyond commendable. There was no question they were going to turn basketball from play into work for LeBron, and they’ve done just that.

Ultimately, the best way to properly address James’ night may be to show rather than tell. Kevin Arnovitz did just that over at TrueHoop. Others could watch that very video and see  justification for their verbal lashings of LeBron, the pariah, but I see a guy that’s just completely out of sync. His passes were off to an irregular degree, his shooting troublesome, and his focus waning. It’s easy to maintain that focus when your team is in control of the game, but with neither the Cavs or LeBron clicking, he floated.

It happens. He deserves to be criticized for it, just not drawn and quartered. Being the best in the world doesn’t remove the possibility of having a bad game — mentally as well as physically — at an inopportune time, and that’s what we all witnessed last night.


  1. Evan - May 12, 2010 at 11:42 AM

    This doesn’t happen to Kobe during game 5’s. Can we stop calling Lebron the best player until he wins a big game or 2. Or 4 in a Finals series.

  2. Rob - May 12, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    I agree with Evan. The Media is responsible for this.
    Lebron was touted by the media as the greatest ever to be drafted into the NBA. The king the chosen one 2 time MVP and what ever else they called him.
    But what has he accomplished in his 7 years in the NBA?
    Absolutly nothing. He hasn’t even gotten his team to the finals yet.
    I not a fan of Kobe Bryant, but at least he has 4 rings to his name and I have never seen him play a horrible game like this unless he just wanted to. Which he has.
    But if your going to say a player is the best in the world at least make them prove they are first by accually doing someting first.
    Right know I think Kobe Bryant is still the best in the world.
    And thakes a lot to say from me.

  3. Cactus from HK - May 12, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    Hey Rob, i totally agree with you. Well said.

  4. Scott - May 12, 2010 at 1:43 PM

    “…until HE wins a big game…?
    I thought TEAMS won basketball games.
    Kobe is surrounded by an actual playoff caliber cast that can win games WITH OR WITHOUT him.
    Lebron has a bumbling cast of slouchers and stumblers surrounding him, and the Cavs STILL have the best regular season record. But without him at 100% (much less sitting on the bench) the Cavs have no chance.
    There is no comparison. Lebron is by far the best player and certainly the deserving MVP in the NBA.

  5. John - May 12, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    I agree with Rob that Lebron hasn’t earned all of his hype, specifically in the postseason.
    However, a small correction is in order. Lebron has led his team to the Finals which itself was an amazing feat. Nevertheless, his disappearance in game 5 was inexplicable.

  6. Jared - May 12, 2010 at 2:09 PM

    @ Rob
    LeBron has been to the Finals before. With Drew Gooden and Eric Snow no less.
    And LeBron has won big games. Detroit is the first thing to come to mind. Orlando with the three at the buzzer. He’s had amazing playoff performances and last night was not one of them. People seem to forget so quickly because it’s a what have you done for me lately society.
    Kobe, albeit one of the best we’ve seen, has always had an amazing supporting cast when he won his championships. Shaq in his prime and the team he has now is loaded. You take the Lakers 6th man (Lamar) and put him on the Cavs, he’s instantly the second best player. But he’s a 6th man on the Lakers.
    Put LeBron on this years Lakers team in place of Kobe. I’d bet the house he’d win a championship.

  7. YX - May 12, 2010 at 2:09 PM

    To be fair, Kobe had his own share of no-shows. Against the exact same team no less. 07-08 Final anyone?

  8. Eric - May 12, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    There is one difference between the two, Jared. When Kobe plays, he elevates the level of his teammates. Even when the lakers lose, 19 out of 20 times Kobe plays with desire and enthusiasm. That is not what we saw last night from Lebron.
    I also have a problem with the “king” business. Call yourself a king when you win an NBA chamionship; until then you are just a wannabe. Besides, the real season starts with the playoffs – all the hoopla prior to that is just to determine the seeding for the playoffs.

  9. Ly2 - May 12, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    Jordan would have never let this happen, Magic wouldn’t have let this happen, and Bird wouldn’t have let this happen. It’s as easy as that. The numbers were horrible, and I won’t say that Jordan, Magic, or Bird never had an off night (shooting wise), but they would have never allowed their team to get run over like what Lebron did. Those 3, even if they were 0 for 10, would have gotten the ball and found a way to create something instead of standing in the corner or swinging the ball around. MVPs dominate, whether if it is scoring, playing defense, or getting their team involved. Lebron did none of that yesterday. All the LBJ fans out there should start to pre-order #6 New York Knicks jersey.

  10. Jared - May 12, 2010 at 7:22 PM

    Are you going to tell me that LeBron doesn’t elevate or make his teammates better. His worst performance ever in the playoffs and he still gets 7 assists or something like that. I’m not defending the guys performance. He had a crappy night. But lets not act like he’s the first one. I can give you a list of bad Kobe performances in the playoffs. Look no further than the 2008 Finals. Kobe goes 7-22 and they lose by 40 in an emlimination game. My beef wasn’t with LeBron having a better night than some are making it out to be. He was bad. No doubt. My beef was Rob talking about Kobe having 4 rings when LeBron hasn’t had half the coach or talent that Kobe’s had for his championships. What’s he got this year? A dinosaur shaq and a 34 year old Jammison? And you said it yourself. Kobe plays with desire and heart 19 out of 20 times. So LeBron doesn’t get the one time that you are giving Kobe? That’s my point.

  11. zach - May 12, 2010 at 8:39 PM

    The focus is based way too much on Lebron’s performance and not enough on chemistry. Having watched every Cavs game this year, the Cavs always have fun. They DO have a good supporting cast. This was the only game where I don’t think a single person cracked a smile. There is something related to team morale that goes deep into the locker room that has caused team tension in this series. No matter how big the game, or how much money people get paid, if you are on bad terms with your teammates you are not going to care about the outcome as much and that clearly showed. Anybody on that team is capable of firing up their teammates but no one felt inclined to do so. The Cavs played as if Lebron said right before the game during a team argument, “Get off my nuts, I’m going to Chicago.”

  12. Jared - May 12, 2010 at 8:55 PM

    Haha.. i see your point. And i’m not a Cavs fan, and I haven’t watched all of their games. I guess i just see it from an outsiders perspective that LeBron, gets too much blame here. Everyone wants to talk about how “disinterested” he looked or how much lack of passion he showed. I mean … it’s 80-63 before the start of the 4th qt. I probably wouldn’t be smiling or trying to pump anyone up either. I feel like too much is being made of LeBron not playing lights out last night when more focus could be made on why JJ Hickson got 4 min. Or why Varejao, 2nd team all defense, got 17 mins. I think the coach screwed the pooch last night just as much as LeBron did. Shaq, while his stat line might not show it, caused the Cavs to be really slow on offense and defense last night, IMO. I’m not sure about what kind of chemistry they have as i don’t follow them too closely, but I can definately see a problem with the mix of players that are out there. I here Charles Barkley say all the time that the Cavs need to play faster, and i’d have to agree with him.

  13. 80's Showtime-Baby - May 12, 2010 at 9:25 PM

    First thing: The LeBron-Kobe comparisons should’ve NEVER been allowed to occur. Kobe is 14 seasons deep in his career (8 seasons more than LeBron) and has long since proven his absurdly uncanny high-level talent faculties and championship mettle (-4 times over). For sure, LeBron is- and- has been a freak-of-nature and a beast on the court since SV-SM, but he’s still primarily a “man-child” merely approaching the mid-swing of a still very early and developing NBA career. I also don’t buy into the notion that he can’t be regarded as the “GREATEST” player in the sport right now just because he hasn’t one a championship yet (-even though I STILL regard KOBE as the greatest player in the NBA- at least, at the guard position.) Ewing, Barkley, and Reggie (Miller) never win a championship- but they will still be regarded as some of the best (at their respective positions) to have ever played the game.
    Second: We all know that this whole “King” bit was primarily glamorized and made acceptable due to LeBron’s last name, James, and of course, we all know why. (Don’t ya just hate the obvious media-made and driven cliches and pet-names/titles that they love to identify their darlings by?) LeBron’s immense talents and physical gifts are deserving of praise and credit- but, NOT to the degree of validating a mano’e’mano player comparison between him and Kobe. Its just ridiculous to entertain the notion. (Being a “fan” is cool. Being a fanatic is..well… let’s just say: Get A Life.)
    GAME 5-
    LeBron seemed to play like he simply wasn’t interested in dragging the series out. I understand that ANY superstar can have an off-night, but something seemed altogether entirely “different” about him in this game. It’s almost as if he wasn’t even really trying- and I’m not merely referring to his perfomance. His body-language seem to convey an underlying disinterest in winning. His facial expression weren’t that of “excitement”, “determination” or even “frustration”; they were more like “Is this over with yet?”. Now, unless he was hiding some sort of physical ailment (internal perhaps? “Bubble-guts” or the like?), then I’d be willing to wager that he consciously not “in-the-game”. If that were indeed the case, then, sorry Cavs fans- your golden boy has already decided that Free-Agency is the place for him to be this summer.
    Game 6 (-and, possibly 7) could prove that LeBron, indeed, just had a bad night and that the Cavs, uncharacteristically, fell completely flat. However, at this point, I’m of the mind that, even if this series is forced to a game 7 back at the Q, we won’t be seeing the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, and we won’t be seeing LeBron in a Cav’s uniform next season.

  14. zach - May 12, 2010 at 11:23 PM

    I completely agree with you about not putting the high energy big men that got them there. Verajao always provides extra possessions with his play. Ok, Jared, the big question, how’s it going to play out game 6??? I won’t hold you to it but let me get a prediction! (Assuming Lebron talks to his mom)

  15. luffy - May 12, 2010 at 11:30 PM

    Hey Jared, you fool, you don’t know basketball dude. How can you say that Lebron’s supporting cast isn’t good?
    Mo Williams, Delonte West, Hickson, Shaq? they even got Jamison? if there’s one weak link, that has got to be the coach…
    Lebron is a great player no doubt about that, 2 time MVP, but he has some curse or something? or maybe Mike Brown is the curse?
    It’s the other way around buddy. Put Kobe in the Cavs now w/Shaq, Jamison, Williams and West and the Cavs will surely be a championship team. And perhaps you could go on a vacation in Cleveland.

  16. Jared - May 12, 2010 at 11:44 PM

    Well…judging by the way things have been going. I just really think that Boston is a better team. Boston will win it tomorrow night. I don’t think Cleveland would get past Orlando if they beat Boston anyways, but i think Boston has Cleveland’s number.

  17. Jared - May 12, 2010 at 11:57 PM

    Well…judging by the way things have been going. I just really think that Boston is a better team. Boston will win it tomorrow night. I don’t think Cleveland would get past Orlando if they beat Boston anyways, but i think Boston has Cleveland’s number.

  18. Anonymous - May 13, 2010 at 12:09 AM

    lol … whatever man. You’re telling me that a 38 year old Shaq and a 33 year old Jammison and Delonte West is good? Hickson isn’t bad, but it’s hard to count him when he’s playing FOUR MINUTES a game. Yea… Ron Artest (30), Pau Gasol (29), Lamar Odom (30), Andrew Bynum (22), Shannon Brown (24)….. come on dude. They have youth and premium players in the prime of their careers. LeBron has Mo freaking Williams… that’s his player in the prime of his career. Averaging a tremendous 11.6ppg against Boston. That’s some good help right there. Pau Gasol is averaging 20 and 13 for the entire postseason. Give me a break.

  19. Netta - May 13, 2010 at 2:01 AM

    Please don’t start making excuses for Lebron now. This very same team is good enough to have the number one record in all of the NBA. Please after he has received all his underserved accolades, don’t start complaining about the same teammates that got him there. Furthermore, if you watched the game his teammates did show up. Lebron did not.
    The night before the game there was an radio interview with Jerry West, who very clearly states that Lebron is not showing enough tenacity in his game right now to win a title… I think he proved that point a night later. (If you need the link, I can supply it.)
    Also, please do not use the embarrassment of the Spurs Cavs series as a good game for Lebron. The NBA cheated Detroit for the Cavs to make it to that series and the end results proved just that point. (It was the lowest watched finals in the history of the NBA – that’s what cheating gets you.)
    With reference to Kobe, I do recall many series in years when the Lakers had only Kobe, he still performed to his superstar level. He is ALL about winning, which is why he has so many haters. Lebron on the other hand is all about the stardom.
    You will never see Kobe on the sidelines dancing mocking a losing team; he did walk show up 1st after the 40pt loss to the Celtics (as the leader of a team should); you may see him smiling after winning a title…
    Btw, he did also win the MVP that matters… The one that comes with the Championship! Perhaps he’ll hold up another this year, to again show who the best player in the league really is.
    Please reassess your statement, adding some hard facts to your thought process. Because you obviously don’t get that it’s more important to show up in the playoffs than in the regular season!

  20. zach - May 14, 2010 at 1:54 AM

    Good call, Jared. How you like the ECF matchup? Orlando is on a tear but some good heart coming out of Boston….

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