June 29, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Elbowgate continues to grow

INDEPENDENCE — The Cavaliers continue to say LeBron James’ injured right elbow isn’t a problem, but his actions continue to indicate otherwise.

Other than that, the inability to contain Rajon Rondo, the back spasms that sidelined Anderson Varejao for the fourth quarter of a 104-86 loss in Game 2 and the declining productivity of Mo Williams and Shaquille O’Neal, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about as the Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, tied at one game apiece, prepare for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday at 7 p.m. at TD Garden.

“I have not heard anything about his elbow,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said Tuesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “He has not said anything to me and our trainers have not said anything to me.

“Obviously, he’s our best player. He’s a great player. If he’s not healthy, it would be a big blow to us, just like Dwight Howard not being healthy would be a big blow to the Orlando Magic.”

But Brown, Williams and even James himself continue to say the small forward’s strained and bruised elbow has not affected his performance in the first two games of the series.

“He’ll tell me if he’s really hurt,” Williams said. “He’s fine. He doesn’t want to hear about it. He doesn’t want to make excuses.”

Visual evidence suggests James would be merely stating a fact if he said his elbow was affecting him, but he may be downplaying the injury in an attempt not to give the Celtics any psychological advantage.

James took two jump shots — and missed them both — in the first half of Cleveland’s 101-93 win in Game 1. One of those was a desperation 3-pointer that failed to draw iron as the shot clock expired.

In Game 2, he took just one jump shot in the first half, another unsuccessful attempt.

“It’s just a result of the way the game is being played,” James, who did not talk to the media on Tuesday and was not seen during the portion of practice open to the media, said after Game 2.

There may be some truth to that, but a lot of the facts don’t add up.

No. 1, the Cavaliers trailed by 11 points at halftime of Game 1 and were down 13 points in the second period of Game 2, so they definitely could have used a more aggressive James at the offensive end.

No. 2, the Cavaliers have rarely employed one of their spread-the-floor sets where James dribbles, dribbles, dribbles, then launches a jumper. Those sets caused groans among regular followers of the team for much of the regular season, but their absence now seems indicative of a larger problem, though Brown insisted the team is “not putting the ball in his hands less.”

No. 3, Williams said Tuesday the Celtics are packing in their defense in an attempt to make James shoot jumpers and limit his drives and free throw attempts.

While the 25-year-old still went to the line 11 times in Game 1 and 15 times in Game 2, wouldn’t that seem to indicate the jumper is there for the taking?

So why isn’t James taking it in the first half?

And why didn’t he attempt to take over in the third period of Game 2, when the Cavaliers were outscored 31-12 and fell behind by 23 points?

In that period, James was 2-of-4 from the field, including one missed three, and didn’t go to the line. He had no free throw attempts, no assists, one rebound and three turnovers.

“I always try to play the game the right way,” James said, later adding, “I’ve never been one of those force guys.”

That may be true, but throughout his seven-year career James has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to take over a game when his team needs him — and he’s been able to do that at any point in the game.

On top of that, he certainly has turned things up a notch in the fourth quarter of the first two games, though it was far too late in Game 2, which matched the worst home playoff loss in franchise history (132-114 vs. the New York Knicks on April 12, 1978).

In Game 1, James launched 11 shots in the final period and made five, including 2-of-4 from 3-point territory, for 12 points.

After scoring just 12 points and taking only nine shots through the first three periods of Game 2, he attempted six field goals and nine free throws while scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter. Three of James’ shots, all unsuccessful, were 3-pointers.

One easily drawn conclusion from all that is James is pacing himself, perhaps because he’s fearful the elbow pain and numbness he experienced in Games 4 and 5 against Chicago might flare up early on and limit him late in the contest.

The Cavaliers, however, insist that isn’t the case.

“I’ve seen him plenty of times come out and let the game come to him, then take over in the second half,” Brown said.

Added Williams: “He has a goal and nothing is going to stop him. He’s playing through it. I don’t think he’s letting it affect him at all.”

When the Cavaliers announced James had a strain and bruised elbow last Wednesday following his second MRI in three days, they said he would undergo another MRI this week.

A team spokesman said Tuesday he did not know when that MRI would take place. The Cavaliers aren’t practicing today — they did only film study and took a few shots Tuesday — so it’s possible James will undergo the MRI then, if he did not already have one done Tuesday night.

In any event, the Cavaliers are sticking to their theory the elbow isn’t an issue, despite visual evidence to the contrary.

“He’s going to play well,” Williams said. “I’m not worried about his injury at all.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.