THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Pregame focus predictably on James

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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The moment was almost here, as the Cavaliers hit the court at TD Garden for their shootaround. The expectation of many was that the Cavaliers, facing elimination, would be almost militaristic in their approach to last night’s Game 6. Silent, focused, and obsessed in their preparation.

The rest of the Cavaliers — call them the LeBrons — followed the mentality of their leader, LeBron James. He sat courtside, looking grim, wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He rose and took a couple of jump shots before telling his teammates that it was much too frigid in the Garden for jokes.

Moments later, James was laughing so hard he had to held up by teammate Jamario Moon after Anthony Parker told Moon that the chilly gym was nothing compared with a December Euroleague game in Lithuania. James found it hilarious, and the ice was officially broken. Serious time was over.

If these Cavaliers were to join the dubious Cleveland club that includes Earnest Byner, Jose Mesa, and Craig Ehlo, they were going at it their way, with constant chatter, good-natured ribbing, and smiles — likely uncomfortable — from their leader.

And as he addressed the media before Game 6, James left the blaring rap music playing from his headphones and answered every question. Under normal circumstances, James can be chatty, giving his opinion on various topics. Last night, he was short and serious. He wanted to get it over with.

Meanwhile, teammate Delonte West attempted to lighten the mood by banging his hands on a wooden stall and uttering lyrics from Parliament Funkadelic’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child).’’

James remained focused.

It was difficult to tell whether this was the biggest game of his life or just another opportunity to display his talent to a world audience. It could be both.

“We’re looking to win,’’ James said. “That’s the only agenda. That’s the only thing we have to this point. We are on the brink of elimination. To me, it’s all about aggression, trying to be aggressive, putting our team in the position to win the game.’’

James had been battered with criticism since Game 5 Tuesday. Some said he quit on his team. Others suggested his 3-for-14 effort was a ploy to ease his way out of Cleveland for New York, Chicago, or somewhere else. Others theorized that the injury to his elbow was far more severe than he has let on.

James responded to this barrage of disparagement with nothing more than the confidence that has made him a two-time MVP. Before last night’s game, he appeared unfazed by those who challenged his desire to win.

“We understand that the game of basketball is played on the court and not off the court,’’ he said. “Everyone is going to have his own comments or debates about what this team should do or what we haven’t done. But as players and me as the leader, I keep our guys focused on what our job is.

“We’ve always been a relaxed team. We understand that this is a huge game and if we play well and we are going to give ourselves a chance to win.’’

James lost his invincible persona with one putrid game. He is no longer considered the unquestioned best player in the game. He is no longer a winner, but a great player who cares as much about self-promotion as he does reaching the pinnacle of team success.

The sudden current of condemnation had James facing a career crossroads in Game 6. Is he a great player? Or just a player with great skills? There is a monumental difference.

“I just had a bad one — at the end of the day, I just had a bad game,’’ James said. “It just so happens it came in one of the biggest games of the season. It’s nothing I could have did better to shoot the ball particularly well from the field.

“Sometimes you just have those types of games, and that was one of those games for me. I forgot about it and I moved on to the next one.’’

How did James and the Cavaliers respond to adversity? Yesterday morning, it was a business-as-usual attitude. Nothing, however, is usual in Cleveland right now.

Coach Mike Brown could be out of a job. LeBron James could be a Chicago Bull. And the rest of the LeBrons could be scrambling for jobs. It was all coming down to one game.

“We’re all going to get criticized,’’ said Brown. “I’m going to get criticized, the rest of the guys are going to get criticized if we don’t play well or coach well. That’s your guys’ jobs. We don’t like it but we have to deal with it.

“Our group is a loose group. So it was good to see. The quieter they are, maybe the tighter they are. But we haven’t been quiet all year. For that to start happening, you’d be concerned.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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