CLEVELAND -- LeBron James entered the locker room drenched with sweat. He just finished a 30-minute postgame workout following his Cleveland Cavaliers' 104-103 frustrating fumble of a loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday. This, after playing a game-high 38 minutes.
But if his plan was to blow off steam before speaking to reporters, James probably could have used another 30 minutes, if not more, in the weight room before coming to talk.
“It’s not about the wins and losses, but it’s about how we lost,” James said, the vision of Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating 3-pointer still fresh in his mind. “How we lost, it hurts. It’s been a while since I felt like this.”
It has also been a while, seemingly, since a first-place team had so many question marks swirling around it.
The loss to Boston, Cleveland’s second defeat in a row to drop new coach Tyronn Lue’s record to a pedestrian 5-3 since he took over for David Blatt, showed just how much more is left for the Cavs to do to prove what they’re actually capable of.
And the ending, seeing a five-point lead with 18.6 seconds to go vanish before their very eyes on their supposedly vaunted home court, was the kind of collapse that leads to finger pointing.
It was Lue’s turn first. He shared his late-game instructions to his team when they were up by four and Boston had the ball with 7.5 seconds left: “We just said, ‘If they go for a layup, let’s just give them the layup,’” Lue said. “No fouls.”
James absolved Smith of any wrongdoing, despite the unfortunate whistle. “It was a tough call,” James said of Smith, who left the arena without speaking to reporters. “He had nothing to hang his head on.”
However, James focused his disdain elsewhere, discussing Iman Shumpert's defense on Bradley for the final shot.
“The last 3, we played it particularly well but it’s not over until the horn sounds,” James said. “We relaxed just a little bit. [Bradley] shouldn’t have been that open to get a shot off like that. Not up two. If we give up a layup, that’s OK, we go into overtime. But not a 3.”
There were two momentum-swinging plays to call out, sure. If Smith doesn’t foul Turner and he doesn’t go to the free throw line, then the Cavs inbound the ball up two with 4.9 seconds left, try to get the ball back to Kyrie Irving -- who was 5-for-6 from the foul line -- and hope he boosts the lead back to four.
And if Shumpert switches onto Bradley immediately on the wing after Tristan Thompson switched onto his original man, Isaiah Thomas, then Bradley probably has a tougher look to win it from beyond the arc -- if he is even able to get the shot off.
The problem is, if you start nitpicking those plays, then you better also point out the other things that went wrong down the stretch and spread the blame around. How about Lue subbing out Thompson for Timofey Mozgov before Turner took his and-1 free throw after the Smith foul? Lue’s thinking, presumably, was that Turner -- an 85.3 percent free throw shooter -- would make it; thus, having Mozgov (73.3 percent) on the floor would be a better option with a one-point lead than having Thompson (60.6 percent) out there.
Of course, Turner missed the free throw and the ball ended up careening off Mozgov’s hands and into James’ body before bouncing out of bounds. Had Thompson stayed in, the Cavs’ rebound leader for the game with 10 at that point, maybe he grabs his 11th rebound and the Celtics don’t get to try for the final shot until after Thompson is fouled with a chance to push the lead back to three or even four if he beats the odds.
And you also better make note of Irving not staying between Jared Sullinger and the basket when he and Thompson were involved in a switch on Bradley’s missed 3 with 9.9 seconds left. Irving allowed Sullinger to grab the offensive rebound and then James allowed his man, Jae Crowder, to hit a 3 to cut Cleveland’s lead from five to two with 8.0 seconds left by being out of position.
When you start to pull at one thread that’s out of place, everything tends to unravel. This is what the Cavs claimed they wanted when they made the move from Blatt to Lue: a culture of accountability. But things can get mighty uncomfortable when every little detail is scrutinized. Rather than Smith being praised for scoring 20 points as the only Cavs’ starter with a positive plus-minus of six, he can get blamed for the Turner foul. Rather than Shumpert being commended for helping Cleveland regain its hold of the boards after being outrebounded by 21 in Charlotte, nabbing eight caroms off the bench, his performance can end up only being remembered for the Bradley shot.
Rather than James’ 13 fourth-quarter points being seen as the only reason the Cavs had a chance to win a game in which they were without Matthew Dellavedova and lost Kevin Love early to a left thigh injury, James' game-high six turnovers and 0-for-5 mark from 3 can be seen as things that ultimately led to Cleveland’s 15-point lead reverting to a seven-point deficit in the fourth.
It’s a dangerous game of dominoes to play, especially in a sport where negativity can breed negativity just as quickly as confidence can breed confidence. The good news is that the Cavs play again Saturday, hosting the New Orleans Pelicans. There’s an immediate chance to make incremental improvements.
“It was just a few bad bounces but obviously can be corrected by us,” Irving said. “We just have to look at this one, throw this one in the back and get ready for New Orleans.”
Then again, there could be more dominoes left to fall.