Commentary

LeBron has different look this series

Whether it's his injured elbow or something else, James not acting, playing like old self

Originally Published: May 12, 2010
By Brian Windhorst | Special to ESPN.com

Shaquille O'Neal & LeBron JamesDavid Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron's passiveness on and off the court has family, friends, teammates wondering what's up.

CLEVELAND -- Shoulders back, head high and usually wearing sunglasses. When LeBron James moves through a room, he almost always grabs the attention. A celebrity with style and size.

No matter the situation, James always strides with confidence when he leaves an arena, even after losses. It has always been this way, be it in Cleveland or Los Angeles or Tokyo or Salt Lake City. James has always played well, been the star of the show and given fans their money's worth -- often and then some.

He's always on the way to a six-figure automobile, a private jet, a mansion, a five-star hotel, a fine restaurant or the hottest club in whatever city he might be in. His ankles and knees might be a bit sore from a game, but his mood is rarely down, his conscience always clear.

When the Cavs have won, it has been because of James. And when they have lost, it has been because of someone else. There are minor variances at times, of course, but seven years of exceeding already-high individual exceptions had bought James an infallibility he wore like one of his tailored suits.

Until this Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Celtics. A series that has the potential to be the tipping point of James' career, when grand expectation and promise morph into words he's not used to hearing. Words such as letdown and failure.

James' performance in Game 5, a game his team lost by 32 points, went way beyond that of a bad game. Every player has bad games. James has had them in the playoffs before, and he'll have them again. No, the way this series is going down, James is facing a situation with which he's not familiar.

Unless James can reverse the course -- and at this point his greatest luxury isn't monetary but the fact that he is allowed at least one more game -- he's facing the first serious spot on his otherwise clean image. One that might last for years and one that changes the way he is perceived, not only in the NBA but also in the professional world he has desired to conquer for so long.

In five games against the Celtics, James has played three subpar games. That alone has stopping power, considering James has lost 28 career playoff games but sported an unblemished record when it came to personal postseason performances.

When the Cavs have been eliminated from the playoffs in James' career, he has had to be thrown out with force. That was why, armed with the best supporting cast of his time in Cleveland, it was assumed that it would take an executive order to knock him out. Especially when he was saying things like: "There is nothing else for me to do but win a championship; it is something that I have worked for and thought about every day since the end of last season."

That end took might. In last season's conference finals, James had one of history's greatest performances in a losing effort, averaging 38.5 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

In 2008, his season ended when his 45-point masterpiece in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston wasn't enough, as a 3-pointer in the final minute that might have given the Cavs the win bounced off the back of the rim.

The Cavs were swept out of the 2007 NBA Finals by a superior Spurs team, but only with James out of gas after leading an upset of the Detroit Pistons with a historical conference finals performance.

Now this. James' stats in the Cavs' three losses show that he's in a slump or that he's being exploited by a Celtics team that clearly smells blood. In those three defeats -- all by 10 or more points -- he has averaged 20.3 points on 36 percent shooting, including a miserable 0-for-13 from 3-point range.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out be great and the best player on the court," James said. "When I'm not, I feel bad for myself because I'm not going out there and doing the things I know I can do."

Those numbers are not why James' performances have been shocking. Is it his nonchalant attitude that mixes with tentative play when he is trying to make something happen? That is what will be remembered for years and what has thrown so many of his supporters off balance.

It's throwing passes into teammates' feet or over their heads, the kind of lack of focus James never shows at this level. When he turns the ball over, it's usually because of his aggressiveness -- trying to squeeze in a pass or losing the ball in a crowd when fighting into a double- or triple-team.

It's standing quietly on the weak side of offensive plays, waiting to see whether the ball will come to him while his team is down on the scoreboard, as if he were biding his time in the second quarter of a game in mid-February on a long road trip.

It's staring into space during huddles instead of giving instructions to teammates or advice to coaches.

It's going back to biting his nails, a habit he thought he had kicked a year ago. It's no longer wearing his finest suits to games to show off his expensive wardrobe to the cameras, as was his custom.

In the Cavs' locker room, and next door in the team family room, and upstairs in the coaches' and executive offices, people who know James well are trying to figure it out. The truth is James' teammates have never seen him in this type of mood before, so passive and reactionary. Not the outgoing, over-the-top leader they have come to follow no matter how it might look on television.

James' family and friends are just as shell-shocked, whispering and wondering what they can do to help

The coaches, especially Mike Brown, who is suddenly on the hot seat after back-to-back winning seasons, are looking at things in game film that they had never seen from the MVP.

James is giving no clues. Given the chance to talk about whether it is his sore elbow -- team sources continue to insist the injury isn't serious -- or whether it is something else, James has declined.

"I don't hang my head low and make excuses," James offered, "because that is not the type of player or the type of person I am."

The problem for the Cavs: What they are seeing from their franchise player is not the type of person or player they knew him to be.

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavs for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can read more of his coverage at www.cleveland.com/cavs.