NBA PLAYOFFS Cavs vs. Celtics
May 1: Cleveland 101, Boston 93
May 3: Boston 104, Cleveland 86
May 7: Cleveland 124, Boston 95
Sunday: Boston 97, Cleveland 87
Tuesday: Boston 120, Cleveland, 88; Boston leads series 3-2
Thursday: Cleveland at Boston, 7 or 8 p.m.
May 16: Boston at Cleveland, if necessary, 3:30 p.m.
By Brian Windhorst
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Late at night when the demons come, whether it is just during the summer or perhaps for years beyond, they will be of what happened Tuesday night.
Whenever a playoff series is tied 2-2, Game 5 automatically earns the tag “pivotal.” But that isn’t accurate for what the Cavaliers faced in their Game 5 against the Boston Celtics. It wasn’t just pivotal for the series, it may indeed end up being pivotal for the entire franchise.
The Cavs lost, 120-88, to fall down 3-2 in the series as it shifts back to Boston, where the soaring and slick-executing Celtics will try to slam the door on another Cleveland title bid on Thursday. In the wreck that remained of the Cavaliers, however, that seemed but a trivial detail.
No, the series isn’t over. But it would be hard to build a case of anything otherwise after the performance the home team gave.
Once again, the Cavs faced a game in which they were not only expected to play with energy and focus but also like a team that had won 127 regular-season games over the last two years and were the No. 1 seed in the NBA playoffs. But once again they played like a team not sure of its place or the stakes.
Once again that included LeBron James, the Most Valuable Player who has become the Most Variable Player in a matter of days. His mysterious elbow injury could explain his flat jumper that plagued him for most of Game 5. Injuries and poor games happens to the greatest of all time.
But the malaise and broken-looking spirit that hung on James’ face and body language told a vastly different story; one of an emotionally injured player.
As has everything with the franchise over the seven years of glory James has brought with him, his Cavs teammates followed James’ emotion and were pulled down into a black hole by the effort and energy that the Celtics produced like the former champions they are.
For the third time in the series, James was a shell of himself Tuesday as he limped to just 15 points on 3-of-14 shooting. That will be a line in the historical box score, but it won’t be the story.
There was a horde of New York-based media in town to document what some thought could be James’ last home game as a Cavalier. With the dire situation in the series — 66 percent of teams who drop Game 5 in a tied series also lose the series — and James headed for free agency with a whimper, that reality was coursing through the veins of the tense and tepid sellout.
Not to be overlooked was the Celtics’ role in the slow death. They have pretty much outplayed the Cavs in four of the five games played so far. That peaked Tuesday when they got tremendous games out of no fewer than five players, a feat in a road playoff game that was breathtaking in its own right.
They undercut everything Cavs coach Mike Brown tried as a countermeasure to the disaster that was happening on the floor. Defensive switches were ineffective. Lineup changes made no difference. Whatever happened in timeouts and in the locker room at halftime could not be called anything but failures.
Ray Allen sent jumpers splashing into the basket over whomever the Cavs put on him, but mostly it was Mo Williams, who also probably had his lowest moment as a Cav. Rajon Rondo was scoreless in the first half but feasted when Williams was switched over to defend him when Allen was done with the tormenting. The Celtics’ point guard ended with 16 points and seven assists.
Paul Pierce broke out of his slump in a big way by playing like James usually does, contributing and creating all night. He had 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. Kevin Garnett continued to look like his knee was 100 percent, scoring 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting.