Playoffs 2017: East Finals -- Celtics (1) vs. Cavaliers (2)

'He's Human': Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue defends LeBron James' off night

LeBron James laid low while all the chatter is buzzing about his unusual performance in a playoff game

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – LeBron James had a bad game.

Maybe, if one of our erstwhile sportswriters had been able to embed himself in the James camp before and after the Cleveland superstar’s head-scratching performance in Game 3 against the Boston Celtics Sunday, we’d learn the whole story. All of the particulars that led up to, and all of the ramifications that spun off from, James scoring just 11 points in 45 minutes in the Cavaliers’ unexpected 111-108 defeat against the previously overmatched Celtics.

At the very least, we might have gotten a piece of sports journalism to rival this from the files of celebrity profiles. Surely, Frank Sinatra having a cold back in 1966 couldn’t have been a bigger deal than LeBron James having a bad game here in 2017.

“No blame. We’re all to blame. We lost – it happens,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said after practice Monday, his team preparing for Game 4 Tuesday night (8:30 ET, TNT) at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Cavs coach had been asked, considering how much credit James gets when Cleveland wins – games, series, a championship last spring – how much blame should go his way when it loses. James himself did not talk with reporters.

Let’s just say Lue didn’t make it all the way from little Mexico, Missouri [pop.: 11,543] to become an 11-year NBA backup and then coach of the league’s title team without smarts.

“It happens,” Lue said. “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.”

That it wasn’t ordinary was evident not just in the numbers and the outcome, but in some uncharacteristic moments in the immediate aftermath. There was James being heckled in an arena hallway by an apparently over served fan, rankling him enough that the Cavs star stepped toward the alleged Hiram (Ohio) College alumnus for a brief exchange before security whisked the guy away. Think of Sinatra in his prime being approached by a too-loud conventioneer far away from the bright lights, in the wee hours.

A few minutes later, James needled a Cleveland radio reporter, accusing the man of only asking questions after Cavs defeats. He was wrong, both on the facts and to do it, but it had been that kind of night.

“I think when he goes home, he’ll watch the game again,” teammate J.R Smith said Monday, when asked how James handles poor performances. “He’ll take it hard that night. And then the next day he’ll wake up and be fine with it. Well, not be fine with it, but accept it more.”

The impetuous Smith, the teammate they call “Swish” who loves the shirtless life, analyzing James’ mental state? Major role reversal and rare, limited to his pal having a bad game.

“That’s my job as his teammate and as his friend is making sure he stays confident in what he does, and you know, just trying to get him out of it,” Smith said.

Then he added: “I mean, I never have that problem. I’ve been confident every time I’ve stepped on the court. Whether I’m falling out of bounds or shooting a free throw, confidence is something I never lack.”

No one bothered to point out to Smith the difference between confidence and conscienceless.

“He’s got to be aggressive, get downhill, play like he’s been playing, play confident,” Smith continued. “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. [That performance is] 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 entire day went like that, James’ bad game sparking endless scrutiny, intense analysis and plenty of snark. The usual suspects ranged from Cleveland sports talk shows to national television networks. The chatter was everywhere.

If every version had been an autopsy report, James’ DOA performance Sunday would have been suffered death by a thousand different causes. Here were some:

He missed shots and thus grew reluctant to take many.

James was his usual facilitating self early, getting teammates such as Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving going. But that went on so long as the Cavs built their lead to 21 points midway through the third quarter, that he was unable to shift out of it. He went scoreless and missed his only four shots over the final 16:31 of the game.

Boston made a determined effort to seal off the lane to James’ penetration, which he had used to such great effect in Cleveland’s blowout victories in Games 1 and 2.

James’ back, a nagging malady for the past couple of seasons at least, had spasmed out on him again. Sleuths watching on TV wondered about a heat pack of some sort under James’ warmup attire before the game. But then, his various methods and apparatuses for dealing with back pain have been on public display for a while.

He went passive on purpose, a challenge to the other Cavs to pick up his slack for some future night when he might have a bad game. And in this case, they didn’t.

He lacked focus for one reason or another, from not taking Boston seriously after the Cavaliers built another 21-point lead to something far away from the court, some private distraction to which folks only could allude.

So unaccustomed to playing home lately, the Cavaliers exhaled and dragged out some bad habits from their underwhelming regular season, such as squandering big leads and getting too casual defensively.

Maybe James took the night off for “rest” without sitting on the side in street clothes.

And so, on and so forth. Yada yada yada. Some of it is a natural extension – as James’ climb up the career playoff totals catches and passes one NBA legend after another – to measure him against Michael Jordan. How many clunkers did Jordan have in the Finals or the conference finals? Betcha never saw Michael settling for 11 points on 13 shots in a game so big? No, Jordan never scored 11 points in a playoff game and only twice finished with as few as 17.

Some of it is the era in which James plays, rife with social media. Some of it is James’ own “fault,” conditioning everyone to expect eye-popping numbers on a nightly basis – he had averaged 34.3 points through Cleveland’s first 10 games this postseason.

Some of it comes the duty of being a team’s undisputed leader. Some of it is entirely legitimate – the difference in James’ on-court assertiveness and level of engagement was undeniable compared to the first two games of these East finals, for sure. Whatever the genesis, Game 3 will be remembered at least through the Finals, assuming Cleveland advances, because it meant a required return to Boston for a Game 5, adding a little extra time and mileage to the schedule of a team – and star – who cherish their days off.

And some of the analysis has been over-hyped. Boston hit shots that it missed in Game 2. James and his mates yielded to human nature in underestimating their twice-pummeled opponents.

And as long as his margin of error is so thin now, if it’s worth noting that this was the sixth time James has scored fewer than 15 points in a postseason game (his teams going 0-6), then so is this: James has bounced back to the tune of 28.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists in his next game. His teams have gone 5-1, outscoring the other guys by an average of 13.4 points per game.

If nothing else, imagine the story that might be written if LeBron James has another bad game.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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