INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- As a nation of critics dissected his rare poor playoff game, questioning his effort, digging for deeper clues about his future and wondering if he has what it takes to win an NBA championship, LeBron James worked on his jumper.
As panic spread through the region, swallowing his nearby hometown of Akron and causing further damage to Cleveland's badly damaged sports psyche, James exuded calm.
There's nothing he can do about Game 5. It's history.
Game 6 in Boston, however, is a chance for redemption and James believes Cavaliers fans should be confident.
"They got me," he said.
But which one? The league's two-time MVP? Or the guy who made 1 of 11 shots from the outside, stood around passively on offense as the Celtics pulled away to take a 3-2 series lead and then raised eyebrows afterward by not being accountable and saying, "I spoil a lot of people with my play."
One day after scoring 15 points in the 120-88 loss -- the Cavaliers' worst in playoff history -- and being booed by fans who wonder if they'll ever see him play in person again, James, who can leave Cleveland as a free agent on July 1, said he and his teammates understand their season, the one that was supposed to end with a downtown parade, is on the brink.
"It's win or go home at this point," he said. "All these guys understand what's at stake and we look forward to it."
Backed up against a wall, both literally and figuratively, James spent nearly 12 minutes after practice on Wednesday answering questions from a media throng about the health of his injured elbow; outside criticism directed at Cavaliers coach Mike Brown; his legacy; and postgame comments by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that his All-Star laden team isn't fulfilling high expectations.
And for the first time, James referred to his elbow injury as "an issue I'll deal with in the offseason."
James was in a better mood than after Game 5, when he was somewhat somber and spoke with a sense of resignation that he had done all he could. He engaged in a competitive shooting game -- at the basket closest to the TV cameras -- with teammates before talking to reporters.
At one point, he even joked he should be given preferential treatment because of his elbow, which has been diagnosed as a sprain and is clearly affecting his shot.
"I've got a handicap sticker on," he yelled to teammates. "You've got to give me special privileges."
His tone and body language on and off the floor in Game 5 were puzzling for Clevelanders, who have rarely seen him in anything but in assault-the-rim mode. James never got into the flow. He attempted just four shots in the first half, didn't make his first field goal until late in the third quarter and was essentially a non-factor in the Cavs' biggest game this season.
It was shocking. For everyone.
James, though, chalked it up to an "off" shooting night and was dismissive about being disheartened by his effort.
"Me? Personally?" he said. "Nah, I'm not disappointed. I'm never disappointed in my play. I feel like I could do more, but I'm not disappointed at all."
James said his cool postgame disposition was nothing new. He wasn't going to bang the table or yell and scream. That wouldn't be him. But that doesn't mean he isn't mad about being one loss from elimination and missing his best chance at his first title.
"It's just who I am," he said. "I'm not going to show you that I'm angry. If I show a sense of panic, guys follow my lead. If I come over here and panic and say, 'We lost by 30 and we don't know what to do.' That's not right. It's not who I am. It's never been who I am."
Cleveland has been outplayed by Boston for the majority of the series. The Cavaliers have had no answer for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, the Cavs' defense has been suspect and the lack of in-game adjustments have brought renewed heat to Brown, who is in his fifth season.
Gilbert, who sat courtside in shock as the Cavs were blown out for the second straight home game, expressed frustration at his team's lack of effort. In comments to cleveland.com, he seemed to lay some of the blame on Brown.
"The entire franchise has done everything in its power to put all our players and its coaching staff in the best possible positions to execute when it counts," Gilbert told the website. "The last two home playoff losses and the manner in which we lost these game does not come close to being anywhere near the high expectations all of us have of our organization. Our fans and supporters deserve more."
James respects Gilbert's view, even though he may not share it.
"I don't get involved in what owners say," he said. "That's how he feels. As players, we go out there and it's not like we're not giving a great effort or trying to play hard. It's not like we go out in a game and say, 'Let's not play hard for the fans.' When you lose bad like that, we hurt just as much as they hurt. But as professionals, we've just got to play a little better."
James had better or his image will continue to take a beating.
His very un-LeBron-like performance in Game 5 led to a skewering by national columnists and sports talk radio hosts, some of whom questioned his passion and desire to be great.
Already considered one of the game's most skilled players James place among the all-time greats will be judged by the number of titles. And unless he does something drastic, No. 1 will remain elusive.
He torched the Celtics for 38 points in Cleveland's win in Game 3, and he can quiet his doubters by leading the Cavs to victory in Game 6.
"I just need to play well," he said. "It's not just me. It's everyone. I put a lot of pressure on me, of course. That's just the type of player I am and that's how I hold myself accountable.
"I need one of those games and I look forward to having one."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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CONFERENCE FINALS PAGES
- Dropping Into Place
- Rajon Rondo surpassed Bill Russell in career assists as the C's outran the Pistons.
- Buch Stops Bucs
- Clay Buchholz had full command of his repertoire as the Sox beat the Pirates.
- Sweeping Sunshine State
- The B's outlasted Tampa on Sat. and finished a season sweep of Florida Sunday.
- Regroup Project
- As March Madness heats up, where does UMass and other local teams stand?
- Taking Inventory
- The Patriots have been quiet so far in free agency's legal tampering period.