The night began promisingly enough, with LeBron James dunking at the end of a well-worked play off the opening tip.
Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas tapped the jump ball to Drew Gooden, who leaped, caught it with one hand, and in the same motion threw a perfect lead pass to James breaking free on the right. A catch, a dribble, then liftoff and by the time the visiting Celtics looked up, there was James swinging rhythmically on the rim after yet another signature flush. But the smile that punctuated it didn't last long.
The NBA starts each of its 1,230 regular-season contests the same way, and most nights you'd have to watch a lot more of the game to find an example where teamwork produces something that smooth. The problem with Cleveland, as James and anybody who's watched the Cavs self-destruct over the last six weeks knows, is that on too many nights you can't count on finding even one.
''Sometimes when your back is against the wall, you play basketball a little different, and we played a little different tonight,'' Cavs forward Robert Traylor said.
''Instead of depending so much on the young kid, everybody stepped up and filled their roles,'' he added, ''and did the things they were supposed to.''
Cleveland's 100-86 win over Boston kept alive the Cavs' hopes though just barely of making the postseason, something that seemed like a lock as February drew to an end. James put up the kind of eye-popping numbers that for him, at least, have become routine 32 points, eight rebounds and six assists but what made the difference Tuesday night was a career-high 22 points from Traylor off the bench and a season-high 13 assists from Eric Snow.
''They came to play,'' James said. ''I brought my 'A' game in the first half, let it slide a little in the second half trying to get my teammates into the game and they did a great job.''
Whether those contributions would turn out to be enough wasn't known until Wednesday night, the end of the regular season, when the Cavs played at Toronto and the New Jersey Nets, their rivals for the eighth and final playoff spot, visited Boston. Because both teams finished 42-40 and the Nets hold the tiebreaker, the win by the Nets over the Celtics ushered them into the postseason and eliminated the Cavs.
The Cavs were a solid fourth in the playoff race at the All-Star break, taking for granted their first postseason appearance since 1998 and already thinking about home-court advantage. But they've lost six of their last 10, and 10 of their last 19, becoming the first NBA team in 35 years to be over .500 after 50 games and still miss the playoffs. And any time a team falls that far that fast, the hunt for a scapegoat begins.
The easy target, given his profile and the marketing mania that pervades the league, is James. Since the kid got most of got the credit for the Cavs' quick rise, maybe it only figures that he would get most of the blame for the nose-dive. Still just 20, he's prone to impatience and can turn selfish on the court at the worst possible moment.
But let's be clear about this much: What's happened to Cleveland is not because of LeBron, but in spite of him.
He's carried the Cavs every night, played three different spots on the floor to accommodate different schemes and plug holes due to injuries, and perhaps most admirably, held his tongue while the franchise was being run into the ground on just about every side of him.
If the NBA ever does a case study of blown opportunities, the premature breakup of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls dynasty, or the Lakers debacle that saw Shaquille O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson exiled from Los Angeles, will still merit higher mentions. But the way the Cavs have been run during James' brief tenure is fast making them contenders.
It began with the botched negotiations that saw Carlos Boozer, James' only capable running mate, escape to Utah before the start of the season. But it kicked into a whole other gear when new owner Dan Gilbert bought the club from Gordon Gund in midseason. As befits someone who made a fortune hawking mortgages online, Gilbert considered his options fast and moved even faster.
He fired coach Paul Silas three weeks later and made it clear that his replacement, NBA lifer Brendan Malone, was just keeping the seat warm. The way things have gone, general manager Jim Paxson has become an odds-on favorite to beat him out the door. Given those examples of teamwork, the players apparently decided it's every man for himself. Their record since suggests as much.
Point guard Jeff McInnis, first demoted by Silas, has become a festering problem. He plays little, contributes less, and in a bizarre scene Tuesday night, didn't even come out of the locker room after halftime until a midway into the third quarter. He spent a brief stint on the bench with a towel wrapped around his head, then returned to the locker room for the fourth quarter, according to a team spokesman, to deal with a bout of food poisoning. McInnis did not travel with the Cavaliers to Toronto for their season finale Wednesday night.
Ilgauskas, the Cavs' only All-Star besides James, becomes an unrestricted free agent at season's end, and the only person lobbying to keep him in Cleveland has been James. He's had to put this team on his shoulders once already. And for all the enthusiasm and durability that goes with youth, James is weary just thinking about whether he'll have to start all over again.
That's why the face of the franchise isn't smiling much anymore.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.
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