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Suddenly, LeBron, and Maybe Cleveland, Are on the Brink

Uh-oh.

Those people who might be making a pitch for LeBron could find no better datum than that at the beginning of the fourth quarter last night against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Cavaliers fans booed LeBron James. It's difficult to argue they didn't have the right; LeBron was horrible, downright wretched, in a soul-crushing 120–88 game-five loss to the Celtics. (You can make a very strong argument that it was the worst game LeBron has ever played, unfortunately coinciding with the most important game LeBron has ever played.) A few Cavs fans let him have it. In what might have been his final game in Cleveland. That turned fast. That turned really fast.

Of all the words written about LeBron's game-five flameout, we haven't seen anything better than Adrian Wojnarowski's column on Yahoo, which, as many have whispered for years, just goes out and says that LeBron seems to care more about succeeding off the court than on. He's putting the cart before the horse:


Winning everything takes a single-minded, obsessive devotion. Michael Jordan had it. Kobe Bryant does, too. They didn't want to win championships, they had to win them. They needed them for validation and identity and, later, they became moguls. LeBron James is running around recruiting college kids to his marketing company. He picks up the phone, tells them, "This is the King," and makes his pitch to be represented in his stable. Think Kobe would ever bother with this? Or Michael? Not a chance when they were on the climb, not when they still had a fist free of rings.

LeBron James is on the clock now, and Game 6 in Boston could be for his legacy in Cleveland. He has been prancing around the edges for too long now, angling for a transcendent existence he believed his brand could bring him. Only, it's all a mirage. It's all vapor until he does the heavy lifting that comes now, that comes in the shadows of Magic and Larry, Michael and Kobe.

Every champion comes to his breaking moment, the point when he realizes winning a title is harder than he realized, that it required an extra gear he didn't know he had. LeBron James is staring into the abyss right now, trailing 3–2 in a series everyone assumed he would win, playing the worst basketball of his career, being booed by a fan base that claims he is essential for their survival. If LeBron pulls it together and wins these next two games over the Celtics and ultimately wins a championship this season, this will have been his moment of reckoning. If he doesn't, and the Celtics beat the Cavs in Boston on Thursday, it is certainly possible that LeBron has played his last game as a Cav. And Knicks fans, know this: If that happens, if they lose Thursday, we will know something about LeBron James that we didn't a week ago. If he comes to town, know that the Knicks will be getting a different player than they thought. Still the best player in basketball. Just different. LeBron has been described as the perfect player. Last night, a clear, obvious and gaping flaw was revealed. Can he fix it in time? Can he ever?

These are big questions to ask about a man who is the best player on earth and the centerpiece of everyone's off-season dreams (along with the cover of our magazine). But man: You really had to see him last night. Even when Michael Jordan was being lambasted for never having won a championship, he never looked like this. LeBron is on the brink. If the Cavs lose Thursday, LeBron will be forever changed, and it will take years to repair the damage. And Cleveland, poor Cleveland ... if that really is the last game he ever plays for the Cavs in that city ... well, maybe the booing was wrong, and maybe it was just premature. We'll know a lot more Thursday. We'll know everything.

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Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images