Despite Cavaliers' fans best effort, LeBron James was the real winner on Thursday night.
Flash back with me to May of 2010.
Not the day you're probably thinking (May 11, Game 5 vs. Boston). No, let's go a few days before that.
LeBron James played one of the best playoff games of his career, with 38 points (14-of-23 FG, 8-of-9 FT, 2-of-3 3PT), eight rebounds, seven assists, two blocks, one steal...and just one turnover. A true work of art, the Cavaliers played like a team on a mission and grabbed a 19-point lead after the first quarter and never looked back.
With the Celtics on the ropes, the Cavaliers had a chance to go in for the kill on May 9. A 3-1 series lead would have been nearly impossible to overcome, even for the vaunted Celtics—after all, the Cavs had gone 84-7 at Quicken Loans Arena in '08 and '09 (playoffs included). Asking a team to win two games in a row in Cleveland would have been near impossible.
Instead, LeBron James was unusually passive. He didn't attack the rim at all, instead settling for jump shots. He took two shots inside of 10-feet in the first half after using an impressive dribble-drive to set up his perimeter shot in Game 3.
The Cavs trailed by double digits for most of the first half until finally claiming a one-point lead in the third quarter. Boston reclaimed the lead in the fourth, and in a crucial four-minute stretch to end the game, LeBron had absolutely nothing to do with the Cleveland offense.
He didn't set anyone up, he didn't attack the rim, he didn't even settle for jumpers—instead, he played with such passiveness that the Celtics grabbed a nine-point lead with less than two minutes to go and allowed the Celtics to tie the series up at two games apiece, finishing the game with 22 points (7-of-18 FG, 0-of-5 3PT) and seven turnovers.
After the game, Cleveland Pain-Dealer beat writers Brian Windhorst and Terry Pluto kept asking Mike Brown how the team could play with a serious a lack of fire and killer instinct in such an important game. Brown must have got the question in about 25 different forms but his answer was relatively simple each time:
"I don't know."
Now let's move ahead to Game 5. Many people remember the Cavs getting blown out 120-88 on their home court, the last game in the LeBron James era.
But few people outside of Cleveland and Boston probably remember that the Cavaliers led by eight in the second quarter and, despite a total defensive collapse in the final eight minutes of the period, only trailed by six heading into the half.
In the biggest quarter of his career, LeBron James played one of the worst 12-minute stretches imaginable, routinely setting for jump shots and shooting just 2-for-7 from the floor. It's not the five missed shots that are upsetting, but the fact that all but one of his shots was taken from further than 18 feet.
He refused to put any pressure on the Celtics defense, instead allowing them to pack the paint, collect easy rebounds and permitted Boston to play the game at their pace...a pace that the Cavaliers (or anyone in the league besides the Lakers, for that matter) couldn't win at.
It was just another moment in the seemingly endless failures of Cleveland sports history.
Now let's go back to last night. The Heat had a comfortable 19-point lead at intermission and were ready to squash any potential run the Cavaliers might have had in them.
James arguably played the best 12-minute stretch he's ever put forth at Quicken Loans Arena, taking the ball directly at the hoop immediately at the beginning of the quarter and setting the tone for the rest of the game.
It was something Cavalier fans were all too familiar with—when James gets that gleam in his eye that says, "I'm taking this ******* game over."
When he scored his ninth point of the third period, less than six minutes into the second half, Miami had opened a 78-50 lead and any hopes the Cleveland faithful had of upsetting the favored Heat were long gone.
James' third quarter (10-of-12 FG, 24 points, two assists, his team possessing a 30-point lead) was a far cry from his pathetic output against Boston in the biggest game of his career (2-of-7 FG, two assists, 17-point deficit). And he finished the game with zero turnovers.
In the postgame press conference, Dwyane Wade said of his teammate, "It seems like [LeBron James] always rises to the occasion when things are their darkest for him."
Except in the postseason, when it matters most.
I'm not one of the conspirators that believe LeBron James quit on the Cavaliers last season. As much as the fan inside of me wants me to believe it, it's just an easy scapegoat, something to blame for the Cavaliers defeat—not entirely unlike the rumors of James' mother and a former teammate.
But no one on the entire planet that knows anything about the game of basketball (or that's even watched one game of basketball, for that matter) can argue that there was equal effort in both games from LeBron. Especially in the third quarter.
The Heat didn't expose anything about the Cavaliers. Anyone who has watched this team knows their weaknesses: they're incredibly soft inside, they don't have any rebounders (outside of Anderson Varejao), the starters struggle to score consistently and overall they're just a bad defensive team.
All of these faults were just shown on a much larger stage tonight: Miami outscored Cleveland in the paint, outrebounded the Cavaliers by eight, outscored Cleveland's starters 81-28 (LeBron had 38 for the game) and shot 56.6 percent while tallying 118 points.
What's more disturbing for Cleveland fans was the lack of energy and passion with which the team played.
Sure, the team came out intense, undoubtedly swept up in the frenzy that the Cavalier fans propelled towards James. But after capturing a 17-12 lead early in the first quarter, they completely fell apart.
You would think they would come out with a chip on their shoulder. After all, they have just three games on national television this season. None will be played in an environment as friendly towards the home team as last night.
Instead, they played like James did in the third quarter of Game 5 vs. Boston.
The way the Cavaliers interacted with James was mind-boggling—particularly Booby Gibson, who was shown laughing and joking with LeBron when he approached the Cavalier bench while Joel Anthony shot free throws at the end of the first half.
Much like Delonte West, Gibson will be a scapegoat for tonight's game. The blame for tonight's loss shouldn't be place squarely on his shoulders.
But, to put this in simplest terms, how in the world could you talk and laugh with a guy who essentially went on national television and said, "You're not good enough to play with me" while he's kicking your ass in the middle of a game on national television?
What kind of competitive streak do you have if that's your reaction to getting beat up and down the court in every aspect of the game?
The Cavaliers crowd did everything to make him feel unwelcome. The Cavaliers, however, appeared to treat James like he was still one of their own.
Even after the game, LeBron took veiled shots at the Cavaliers front office and roster. "It's easier to have these guys out here on the court with me," James said in the press conference.
Chris Webber said it best after the game (paraphrasing): The way the Cavaliers fans represented themselves and the city was fantastic. The way the team represented itself was disgraceful.
This will probably sound like the tired and overused laments from an exasperated Cleveland fan. And they are. But those faithful to not just the Cavaliers but all three professional teams of this city deserve better.
They deserve a team that will bust their ass every game and not accept failure.
They deserve a team that won't greet an embarrassing loss on the biggest of stages with a tongue-in-cheek grin.
The sad truth is, this is just a different era we live in. You hear commentators like Steve Kerr, Kevin McHale, Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller and Webber (all guys that played in the '80s or early '90s) become almost flabbergasted when they see the way players in today's game interact with one another.
After James nailed a ridiculous fadeaway late in the third quarter and started barking at the Cavs bench, McHale said in the postgame show (again, a paraphrase): "Somebody needs to trip him when he's running back down the floor."
Only the Cavaliers simply didn't have that fight in them.
Other than Anderson Varejao (and J.J. Hickson in the opening minutes), nobody on the team appeared to have any interest of representing the name on the front of their jersey.
Maybe it was drained from them in the playoffs last year.
Maybe it was because, as a leader, James never instilled that killer instinct, and in turn the rest of the role players didn't have it in them.
Maybe they're still just learning how to adapt to new roles.
Whatever the case, in his last two games in Quicken Loans Arena, LeBron James has successfully ripped the heart out of the Cavaliers—a feat not easily accomplished since the city is so used to heartbreak.
And moving forward, professional basketball will more than likely never be the same in Cleveland again. The nation has seen this team at its absolute worst and everyone knows that, even if this team can somehow turn it around and sneak into the one of the final two playoff spots, they're not going to be serious contenders for a long time.
This was an acceptable truth after James left—no one, not even the most die-hard Cavalier fan, expected a deep playoff run.
What they didn't expect was a team to roll over and helplessly take abuse from a former teammate on national television almost willingly.
Looking ahead, it's hard to believe that the current roster will be intact after this year's trade deadline. And the Cavaliers have a long, long, long, long way to go to get back to contender status.
So evidently, the faux King did leave a lasting legacy on his city after all.