If you happened to tune into TNT for Game 5 of the Cavs-Celtics series on Tuesday night, you witnessed 20,000 people get punched in the gut.
Even as a woebegone Toronto sports fan, I could not fathom the pain experienced by those in attendance at the Quicken Loans Arena, who started the night eager to see LeBron James and Co. throw the latest salvo in what has been a compelling back-and-forth series. After all, the Cavs were coming off a loss and playing on their home court, where they had gone 4-1 in five previous play-off games.
That optimism had regressed into tentative angst by halftime (Boston was up six), into pure despair by the end of the third (Boston by 17) and finally into despondence among those still around for the final buzzer of a 120-88 thrashing. Sure, the possibility for a comeback series win still exists, but so does the possibility of a scenario which no Cavs fan wishes to fathom.
With the Summer of LeBron fast approaching, everyone knows what’s at stake for not just the Cavs but the entire city of Cleveland. The line between euphoria and panic is a thin one, with each win bringing the team closer to an elusive NBA title and each loss bringing nearer the question of whether the King is preparing to leave his castle. The Game 5 loss brought the question uncomfortably close to the forefront and even the TNT crew wondered aloud whether James had played his final game in Cleveland as a member of the home team.
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The situation the city currently finds itself in is unprecedented. It is reasonable to imagine them winning the title and continuing to excel for years to come. It’s also easy to envision a team that flames out of the postseason with nothing but bad contracts and mediocre talent to show for it next year. The Cavs may not have James beyond this season, but they do have Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and Daniel Gibson locked into big money deals. And that core simply isn’t going to cut it moving forward.
The fear and paranoia attached to LeBron’s free agent status expands beyond the franchise to the city’s collective sporting identity. The Cavs are the one great hope in a town where the Indians have lost an All-Star player in each of the last three years (C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez) and may lose another (Grady Sizemore) sometime soon, while the Browns have played one play-off game since returning to the NFL in 1999 and show no signs of heading towards a second postseason tilt. For the local Akron phenom from St. Vincent–St. Mary to spurn his hometown team and pursue titles elsewhere would put all other Ohio-related heartbreak to shame.
True, far too many words have been wasted on what amounts to a handful of pending free agents, led by the reigning two-time MVP. But can you overhype the Summer of LeBron when it can already clearly be seen that he’s the difference between a team being a title contender and an also-ran that may or may not have the talent to sneak into the play-offs? It’s difficult to envision any NBA team which James could not carry to 45-50 wins.
Which is precisely what makes this such a curious time for Cavs fans. For all that is unknown about what’s to come this summer, one thing is certain: the city of Cleveland is approaching Game Six with a sense of urgency unlike what many fan bases have ever experienced before.