INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – LeBron James was nowhere to be seen, staying behind the scenes, keeping a low profile.
Just as he did in Game 3.
James did not address the media Monday, hours after one of the worst postseason games of his career, an 11-point, six-turnover, head-scratching atrocity in a 111-108 loss to the Boston Celtics that – for the time being – has made the Eastern Conference finals interesting.
As is always the case with Cleveland’s superstar, the poor performance prompted the usual speculation and suspicion: Is he hurt? Was he sending a message to his teammates? What in the name of Red Auerbach happened?
“It was a weird game,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “A weird-feeling game.”
And it was an uncharacteristically passive performance by James, who had scored at least 30 in eight straight playoff games and imposed his will on the overmatched Celtics in the series’ first two games.
But James wasn’t himself Sunday night, not by a long stretch. He passed up shots and made mental and physical mistakes normally reserved for others.
For a superstar who regularly seizes the biggest moments and makes them his own, it was strange to see James basically look like one of Cleveland’s reserves. He took just three shots and didn’t attempt a free throw in the fourth quarter.
Incredibly, he went scoreless over the final 16 minutes.
James accepted responsibility afterward, saying simply “I didn’t have it” during a postgame news conference that was preceded by a run-in with a heckling fan in the hallway.
If James’ play wasn’t stunning enough, Cavs forward J.R. Smith said his celebrated teammate lacked confidence.
What’s that? A three-time champion, four-time MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist, global icon, billion-dollar-business-in-sneakers, wasn’t confident?
“He’s got to be aggressive, get downhill, play like he’s been playing, play confident,” Smith said. “That’s what I always think, when people of his stature or people like him, you’ve got to play confident the whole night and play aggressive. It’s the Eastern Conference finals. It’s not enough for him. For what he does, what he brings, it’s not enough.
“He knows that. We know that. Just expect him to be better in Game 4.”
The series resumes Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena before returning to Boston on Thursday for a Game 5 that didn’t appear necessary until the Celtics stormed back from 21 down and won when Avery Bradley’s 3-pointer danced an Irish jig on the rim before falling with 0.01 seconds left.
It was Boston’s first outing since star guard Isaiah Thomas was shut down with a hip injury, and the Celtics showed they’re capable counter-punchers.
“You obviously hear people saying that it’s all about how you respond, and we don’t feel like people believed in us and counted us out,” Bradley said. “But that just put another chip on our shoulder, which I think is good. I hope we can continue to play with that chip on our shoulder and come out the same way next game.”
Thomas didn’t travel with the club to Cleveland, but he was part of the postgame fun.
“We called him on FaceTime, so he got to celebrate with us a little bit,” Bradley said. “We wish he was here with us, and we just want him to get better.”
Boston’s comeback was fueled by Thomas’ replacement, Marcus Smart, who made 7 of 10 3-pointers and scored 27 points. The Cavs chose to go under screens, giving Smart room to shoot and he burned them badly.
“Marcus Smart made 15 out of 77 off-the-dribble threes this year,” Lue said, defending his defensive plan on Smart. “He made some last night.”
As Lue spoke to a large group of reporters and some Cavs players got in extra shots following practice, James was noticeably absent from the floor. Usually, he hangs around to work on his game, but on this day No. 23 wasn’t visible.
Lue said James was “in good spirits” and that no one was pinning the loss on him.
“No blame. We’re all to blame,” Lue said. “We lost; it happens. For a guy who played great for five straight months, he’s got to have a bad game sooner or later. He’s human. He didn’t shoot the ball well. It wasn’t his ordinary game. But Kevin (Love) and Kyrie (Irving) had it going early and they played well, so it kind of got him out of rhythm a little bit in that first half.
“That’s no excuse. They played well, but we’ve just got to play better, be more physical.”
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