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Steve Aschburner

LeBron James resorted to shooting a free throw left-handed in the closing seconds of Game 5.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

With C's on way, gimpy elbow could affect LeBron, Cavs

Posted Apr 28 2010 1:40AM

CLEVELAND -- The Chicago Bulls did the Boston Celtics a couple of favors on their way to another one-round-delayed springtime fishing trip.

First, they demonstrated again that the best defensive option against the No. 1-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers is to put the burden of winning the game on guys who don't inspire a lot of "unanimous MVP" or "best ever" debates. Permitting LeBron James to shoot under, around or over you, from inches away or from the other side of the street, is always a worse choice

Second, the Bulls lost -- just barely and rather nobly, 96-94, in a Game 5 Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena that could have been much more of a formality and a dispatching. Still, with their elimination, the Bulls fast-tracked Game 1 of the Cavs-Celtics Eastern Conference second-round series to Saturday rather than Monday. That shaves a couple of treatment days off James' schedule for diagnosing and healing a suddenly worrisome right elbow.

Had Chicago done just a little bit more, it might have forced James and his crew to play again in 48 hours, an even greater test of his sore elbow. But this will do for Boston, an aging crew that should be happy to face Cleveland's 25-year-old superstar with half a clipped wing.

That elbow figures to grab headlines from now until whenever it heals, falls off or is resting comfortably alongside James and Joakim Noah this summer on one of Cleveland's finest beaches. In the hour or so after the Cavaliers advanced Tuesday, it got more attention from the bunch of armchair orthopedists in the interview-room audience than Dick Cheney's heart received in eight years from the White House press corps.

What is it? When did it happen? How bad is it? Heading off to any specialists? See what using your left hand to shoot one inconsequential free throw with 7.8 seconds left can trigger. That's the therapeutic switch James pulled on his own near the end, after sinking one foul shot that gave Cleveland the cushion it needed -- 96-92 -- then switching hands to deal with some discomfort.

"I've got to figure this thing out," James said afterward, his right arm at least not in a sling. "It almost feels like you hit your funny bone -- it kind of numbs up a bit. After I shot the first one, that's exactly what it did. I wasn't even going to try to shoot the second one."

James said the numbness comes "off and on," and that he first noticed it several weeks back. Even that week of rest and recuperation didn't solve the problem, though.

"I've never had a problem with my elbow before," he said. "Probably minor stuff in the past. I don't know exactly when it happened. Can't figure it out. It's been going on for a few weeks. Hopefully it doesn't continue to bother me as we move on in the postseason. ... It bothers me more because I don't actually know what it is. But we'll figure it out. We've got the best docs in Cleveland. We'll be fine."

Unfortunately, "we'll be fine" doesn't play so well in James' particular sports town. That's what someone in the Dawg Pound said when John Elway was moving the chains against the Browns nearly a quarter century ago. Oh yeah, don't worry. We'll be fine. Arf, arf.

So should Cavs fans start to worry? "I'm not concerned," James said. "I just want to get a better sense of what it may be. But Cleveland fans have nothing to be worried about. I'm healthy, I'm ready, we look forward to the second round. I have no reason to panic."

There was reason to fret, at least, down the stretch against the Bulls Tuesday. By constantly double-teaming James or by sending Noah out to play some pterodactyl ball defense out top, Chicago was essentially daring the other Cavs to beat them. Given James' bum elbow, that was more necessary than ever.

But those other Cavs didn't quite rise to the occasion. If they weren't missing shots (Mo Williams, 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter), they were passing them up entirely (Delonte West two shots in 12 minute, Anderson Varejao none in 12). Achy arm or not, James still had to carry his club with eight points in that final period.

There were glimpses when James could be seen reminding his guys to do what they're supposed to. "I do that all the time," he said. "I tell them take the shot if you're open, which they're going to be a lot because I do attract a lot [of defensive attention]. And I don't care if they miss it, I just want them to take it, don't second-guess themselves."

The Cavs did score nine of their 23 points from the line, helped along by the flurry of foul activity at the start of the quarter centering on Shaquille O'Neal. With Brad Miller, Taj Gibson and Noah trying simply to hold their spots and variously brace themselves, the officials seemed to be defining what is and isn't legitimate defense against that Cleveland man-mountain. Miller and Gibson wound up fouling out and Noah ended the night with five personals.

Still, Chicago stayed close, then crept closer. Up 77-76 with 9:12 to play, down 93-84 at 3:48, then right there again at 93-92 and 92 seconds to go. That's when James took it upon himself to blow by Noah and foul out Gibson, hitting both free throws -- righthanded -- with 1:11 left.

Cleveland got a Jamario Moon miss and a Varejao turnover after that, but Chicago's Derrick Rose missed a pair of shots too. The second of those, coincidentally, was with his left hand when the Bulls point guard tried to create contact in the lane with Varejao with 9.9 seconds left and close the 95-92 gap with an and-1 play.

It fell short, and now the Cavaliers advance. James' injury figures to get more attention in the coming days than Daniel Gibson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jawad Williams combined, so they might want to clear a locker and create some space on the bench.

You know, elbow room.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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