Cavs-Celtics: Six questions on Game 6

Elimination games don't get much more meaningful than this. With LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers fighting just to stay alive, and the Boston Celtics trying to complete the upset and avoid a Game 7, the future of the NBA landscape could hinge on this game.

Check out the action at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ESPN3 and ESPN Radio, and chat about it today, starting at noon.

We asked our panel of NBA experts for their thoughts heading into Game 6:

1. What happened in Game 5?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: "I don't hang my head low or make excuses about anything that may be going on," James said after Game 5. Honorable and all that. And telling.

You'd say that, I suggest, only if something was going on. And something -- whether his dog died, he's injured, he's exhausted or something else is going on -- was most definitely going on, even though he swore to TNT's David Aldridge at halftime that he was physically fine.

Until he spills the beans on that, all we can do is guess. But LeBron James has a big ol' track record, and that was not him, so I believe something is up.

J.A. Adande: ESPN.com: A fully functioning unit beat a malfunctioning individual. As errant as LeBron James' jumper looked and as hesitant as he was to shoot it, his elbow must have been bothering him. He still could have driven to the hoop, posted up, grabbed defensive rebounds and charged upcourt. No teammate bailed him out.

Boston, meanwhile, got the Big Three to come through the way it envisioned when it first assembled them.

Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: For all the talk about LeBron James, Game 5's most defining feature was a prolific display of offense by the Celtics. Their 130.3 efficiency rating was their second-best outing of the season. The C's destroyed the Cavs one-on-one, were effective in transition, got a ton of production from the reserves, crashed the boards and made only a handful of bad decisions all night.

Cleveland's paralysis on the offensive end was a stark contrast to Boston's brutal efficiency. Though James' unassertiveness was most notable, neither Antawn Jamison nor Mo Williams could generate anything against the Celtics' smart defense.

Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Game 5 was inexplicable. For some reason, LeBron just wasn't himself. He wasn't aggressive, tenacious or intense, and his teammates followed his lead. While his elbow is strained and bruised, it's no excuse. His form (waist up) looks fine on his free throws and jumpers.

I also don't think the pressure got to him. He has played in high-pressure games several times and typically comes up big. There's no way he cracked.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: LeBron's elbow was clearly a factor, and I think it affected him mentally as much as physically. I'm not sure he's ever played with a significant injury before and it's clearly affecting him.

But here's the other part nobody is talking about: Boston scored 120 points! The Celtics aren't even a good offensive team, so there's no way they should be scoring this easily on Cleveland.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: There was too much focus on getting Shaq involved in the offense, not enough on LeBron. Was that coach Mike Brown's way of making up for the Game 4 benching of Shaq? I've never seen LeBron so uninvolved in the offense, but Boston and its D have to get some of that credit. The Celtics got the ball out of his hands and kept it out.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: I want to believe LeBron's performance was at least somewhat injury-related because it would be indescribably disappointing otherwise. The reality, though, is that finding a way to be effective when you're hurt is something we expect the greats to do, fair or not.

Steve Nash just showed us the blueprint Sunday night with that one-eyed determination to finish San Antonio off when he had the chance, lest his longtime Spurs tormentors sniff even a hint of new playoff life.

For all the valid concerns about the Cavs' shaky chemistry and the long-standing criticism of Mike Brown's offense and ability to in-game improvise, LeBron could have played way harder in Game 5. Even with a bad elbow.

David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: This looked like a player who was injured. Often when a team's best player is hurt, he hopes his teammates can step up and carry him for a change. This looked to be the case on Tuesday. LeBron knew he was not going to be able to play effectively and looked as if he was waiting for someone else to step up.

Adding to his problems was a Celtics team extremely well-prepared to make things difficult on him, while getting into an offensive flow at the same time. Few, if any, teams could have beaten that team on Tuesday.

2. LeBron's Game 5: Just an off night or a career-defining game?

Abbott: Twenty-nine GMs pray the Cavaliers define LeBron James as a guy who typically plays like that. Sign-and-trade him for Chucky Atkins already!

Adande: As I've explained in greater detail, one night can't define his career when he has 5-10 extraordinarily high-level years left. There's no reason 3-for-14 in Game 5 has to take precedence over 38-8-7 in Game 3 unless you believe the only game that matters is the last one.

Arnovitz: We have a funny way of defining careers. If the Cavs lose this series, Game 5 will become a major plot point in James' story as a pro. But even recognizing the import of Tuesday night's game, it's misguided to look at James' entire body of work and indict him for a rare awful performance.

However you gauge James' performance, he has an alluring challenge ahead of him between now and Sunday -- the task of carrying his team to the conference finals against the odds. That achievement would reduce Game 5 to a footnote.

Broussard: Not just an off night. This was worse; he wasn't just off, he was disengaged. But career-defining? No. He's got a long way to go, and he'll overcome this.

Hollinger: It's a career-defining game only if the Cavs lose the series. If they win, the story becomes his response to such a bad game.

If they lose, however, it may be more than career-defining -- it may be franchise-defining.

Sheridan: Just an off night, but with the potential to be one of his career-defining games since it may have been his last home game in Cleveland, and it was such a stinker they'll talk about it there for decades. If Game 6 goes Cleveland's way, Game 5 goes down as a hiccup. He'll be judged on Game 7.

Stein: Career-defining game is a huge leap … unless this turns out to be the start of a pattern of playoff underachievement. Which seems highly unlikely. LeBron has way too much talent and ages left in his career to leave us with so many other memories.

This series will certainly be remembered forever if he ends up leaving the Cavs this summer, but the NFL mentality routinely applied to NBA analysis in the 21st century -- which is to say that we quickly veer into crisis mode as if this were a one-game-a-week league -- is offset by the fact that memories are shorter than ever. Magic Johnson had to live with being called Tragic Johnson after the 1984 Finals, but who would even remember that now if they didn't bring it up on HBO's fantastic recent documentary about Magic and Larry Bird?

Thorpe: I subscribe to "Rule of 1" in sports. That is, one game, week, month or season can never be the whole story.

Even if LeBron were totally healthy, which seems impossible, one bad game cannot erase all that he has accomplished in his career. I've broken down dozens of his playoff games and been amazed by his consistent excellence, up to and including some games just last week. If his elbow is any better, he's going to be extremely dangerous in Game 6.

3. What must the Cavs do in Game 6?

Abbott: Stop giving Rajon Rondo so much room to operate! It may goad him into some jumpers, but it's also making everything easy for him.

The Cavs also ought to surprise Boston's defense once in a while. The Cavaliers are not so innovative on offense, which plays into Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau's havoc-creating defensive schemes.

And finally, if James isn't going to make jumpers, I'd implore Mo Williams to look for James on the break more. He missed him at least twice. Those would have been easy opportunities to get the King feeling good.

Adande: Given that the Cavs have been effective only when LeBron is on, he has to play a great game. Forty-plus. Defensively, they need to get to Rajon Rondo before he gets to them; he can't wander into the lane and dictate what happens. And if Rondo's going to hang out under the basket hunting for offensive rebounds, they need to rush off defensive rebounds before he and the Celtics' big men can get back.

Arnovitz: The Cavs must figure out a way to move the ball against the Celtics' defensive pressure. Boston loves to flood the ball side of the floor, which has effectively taken away Cleveland's preferred play sets. More than anything, LeBron must find his way into the paint. Situating him on the block would be a start.

On defense, Cleveland needs to become more aggressive combating the one-on-one matchups that are hurting the Cavs. Williams and Jamison need help, as does Anthony Parker when covering Rondo. Coach Mike Brown isn't all that fond of double-teams and traps, but he'll have to come up with something.

Broussard: Simply put, the Cavs must come to play. If they bring intensity and play hard, they have the ability to beat Boston.

Hollinger: Guard somebody. Use rotations that make sense. Shoot better. All those things are crucial.

But none of it will matter unless LeBron James plays like the LeBron James we're accustomed to seeing.

Sheridan: First, match the Celtics' defensive intensity. Second, let LeBron dribble and create, and get him to the foul line. The refs looked eager to send him there in the first half of Game 5, and there's no reason why that shouldn't continue in Game 6.

Stein: Speed. Up. The. Game. Beyond the obvious -- also known as trying -- Cleveland has to play faster if it wants to see less of the Celtics' set defense, which we can all agree now is still rather steely despite all the talk about Boston's age. You know LeBron is going to come out with a big swing after the hammering he has absorbed this week, but he's still going to need speed-it-up help from Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson.

Thorpe: The Cavs have had a defensive identity for years, and until they show improvement on that side of the ball, they will seem lost. Their passive approach to Rondo has failed miserably, so it's time to turn up the pressure on him and everyone else, and getting five guys on the glass is paramount.

"Nothing easy, every play with toughness" needs to be written on their blackboard. And they need to outshoot Boston. Shooting derives from confidence, and nothing builds the Cavs' confidence like locking teams down on defense.

4. The C's are nine wins from the NBA title. How many will they get?

Abbott: Four.

But … you're asking me? I picked but one sweep in the second round, and it was the only series that was not a sweep. And it gets worse. The sweep I picked was Cleveland over Boston. Now I think the most likely scenario is the Celtics will win, and then fall in seven to Orlando.

Adande: Three more. One in this series and two against the Magic.

Arnovitz: Zero … and I mean this with no disrespect. Boston has been the better team for five games, but this story seems ripe for redemption. The Celtics will put up a fight in Game 6 (when do they not?), but a Cavs victory would mean the Celtics must return to Cleveland to get their third road win of the series. As smart as the Celtics have been in this series, James doesn't figure to fail the Cavs again.

Broussard: Zero. However, Boston will beat Orlando if it closes out Cleveland. If healthy, the Celtics can beat anyone.

Hollinger: Two. I like their odds on Thursday given my unprofessional diagnosis that LeBron's injury is affecting him more than he's letting on, but I don't see anybody beating Orlando in a series right now.

Sheridan: One or two. I think they can get past the Cavs, because Boston knows how to slay a wounded animal. But I think Orlando would take them in five in the conference finals.

Stein: Three or four more wins at best. The Magic's sweeping days in this postseason are over, but they're not going to lose a series to these Celtics if that's whom they get in the Eastern Conference finals. Too many weapons for the Celts' weary legs to deal with.

Thorpe: Three.

In his tenure, Kevin Garnett made the difference for this team, more or less, with his inspiring play. But guess which team gave him the most trouble this season: yep, the Magic, holding him to 10.5 ppg and less than 38 percent from the field. And Rashard Lewis loves playing the Celtics. Magic in 6.

5. The Cavs are 10 wins from the NBA title. How many will they get?

Abbott: My best guess is zero. The Celtics are the better-prepared team, play harder and have home court on Thursday.

However, I would not be remotely surprised to see the Cavaliers win this series. Under normal circumstances, they're the better team. But under normal circumstances, LeBron James is LeBron James, which may or may not be the case on Thursday.

Adande: One. They eke out Game 6 in Boston, but lose Game 7 at home in the latest soul-crushing sports event for Cleveland sports fans.

Arnovitz: Four. If Cleveland roars back to win the final two games of this series, it'll be walking into the buzz saw that is the Orlando Magic. The Magic are too stingy, too disciplined and too versatile for a Cavs team that's having trouble scoring and doesn't have the personnel to handle the Magic's inside-out attack.

Broussard: Ten. I've been picking the Cavs to win it all year. My head tells me to bail, that even if they beat Boston, they will fall to Orlando. But I guess I have to stick with them until they're no more.

Hollinger: Zero. I think their season ends on Thursday. But if they somehow win, it could end up being the turning point of their season.

Sheridan: I'd have to say zero. Their body language and karma was all so negative during and after Game 5. I don't think they have much left in the tank unless LeBron goes for 40-plus.

Stein: Can I give the same answer? Three or four more wins at best. The Cavs, after that great regular season and a big trade for Antawn Jamison, actually look now like the team I was expecting at the beginning of the season, living a torturous daily experience because of the threat of LeBron's pending free agency. The Magic, meanwhile, were my preseason pick to repeat as East champions this season … and are suddenly playing at a level no one imagined.

Thorpe: Zero.

While I think Cleveland can win the series with Boston, the probability is low. And even if it happens, I think the Cavs' momentum would not be enough to carry them past the Magic four times.

I've never believed in the "Shaq medicine" versus Dwight Howard, and I think Orlando would execute its defensive strategies just as Boston has done. Magic in 6.

6. If Boston wins this series, does LeBron return to Cleveland?

Abbott: Game 5 did wonders to extinguish whatever good vibes there have been in Cleveland, and it makes sense that a bitter second-round exit would make staying less appealing. Thankfully for Cavaliers fans, free-agency decisions come in July, not mid-May. And the Cavs still have a free-spending owner and a pretty talented roster in his hometown, while the Knicks have Eddy Curry.

Adande: If his goal is to win championships -- and the Cavaliers couldn't even reach the Finals in two seasons with the NBA's best regular-season record -- it's not going to happen there. Better to go someplace where he doesn't bear the singular burden of ending 46 years of sports futility.

Arnovitz: Getting inside the head of James is impossible, but I think he returns to Cleveland, regardless. If the Cavs bow out in the semifinals, it will give the front office full license to dismiss Brown. The organization, in its usual deferential fashion, can then turn control of the makeover process over to James.

Broussard: I think it'll boil down to three teams: Cleveland, Chicago and New York, with the Cavs and Bulls as favorites. Gut feeling? Bulls.

Hollinger: The temptation is to say no, especially with Chicago looking to play the John Calipari wild card and Miami hoping to capitalize on LeBron's friendship with Dwyane Wade.

Here's one thing I wonder, though: He's been savaged by the press for his performance in Game 5. Might he be thinking the New York/Chicago media will be much harsher than it has been in Cleveland and Akron, and that it's a price not worth paying?

Sheridan: I have said I thought there was only a 40 percent chance he stays in Cleveland if the Cavs lose, but that was assuming a Finals or conference finals loss. If they lose to Boston in 6 or 7, I'd drop that "will stay" percentage to 25.

Stein: I think losing this series, in this manner, would actually make it harder for LeBron to leave. To fall so far short of expectations, fail to influence proceedings as an MVP should and then bolt his home state would be the scenario in which the Game 5 loss, if not career-defining, always stays with him. No one knows what he's really planning July 1 -- and I still believe that even LeBron doesn't know yet what he's going to do -- but this week will have been a pleasure for him criticismwise if the Cavs implode in the second round and he walks.

Thorpe: I've long felt that LeBron was headed to Miami and that what happens in any one series will not matter.

We've seen the synergy between LeBron and Dwyane Wade the past few summers, and I think they are both curious about playing together full time. It's clear that LeBron genuinely loves to play basketball, and always is working to have fun while doing it. So LeBron has to be thinking about how much fun he would have playing in Miami -- and a few other cities, too. As they say, the grass is always greener.