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It's a strange time for Cleveland in what could be the last days of LeBron

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

CLEVELAND – Late Monday night, Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue held a news conference following a 111-102 Game 4 victory over the Boston Celtics that evened the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece headed to Wednesday’s Game 5 in Massachusetts.

Lue was asked 19 questions by the media. None was centered on the man who had just delivered 44 points, five rebounds and three assists.

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The name LeBron James was referenced only twice in the nearly 13-minute session, once when Lue said the team wanted to have the offense revolve around James early in the fourth quarter and another time when he praised how the rest of the Cavs played when James was on the bench. Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Korver and Tristan Thompson were the focus.

These were all reasonable storylines because Cleveland desperately needs its team to play well for it to win this series. James’ brilliance is a bit of a given. The other guys? Not so much.

Still, to recap, LeBron James scored 44 points in a critical conference finals game that reset this series, assured a Game 6 back here and greatly increased the Cavs’ chances of reaching a fourth consecutive Finals … and nobody was talking about it.

LeBron James had 44 points that weren’t really talked about Monday night. (AP)

“Yeah,” said Boston’s Al Horford of James’ performance, “it’s something that people shouldn’t take for granted.”

They aren’t taking LeBron for granted in Cleveland this year, but the circumstances of the situation sure do make it unique, if not downright strange.

There seem to be endless emotional swings with Cavs fans. Some of them know to try to soak in every moment of LeBron’s genius, which is so profound that dropping 44 in a playoff game seems like it’s nothing special.

Still, on the two occasions that “M-V-P!” chants broke out at Quicken Loans Arena on Monday, they quickly petered out. This being a football town first and always, there were bigger crowd reactions to pictures of Ben Roethlisberger and the University of Michigan logo that are designed to create booing.

Some of the fans are trying to get swept up in the thrill of another playoff run, the joy that these long series bring to spring nights when an entire region seems to be tuning in. The streets are filled pregame, and bars get packed and a Cavs game is always an excuse to text some old friend who moved away.

Yet there is also a bit of foreboding to it. These fans aren’t naive anymore or drunk on hope in the face of long odds. Yes, Cleveland is two games from the Finals, but there was no delirium in the stands. There was excitement as the victory was secured, but it was measured. That’s likely because everyone assumes Golden State could be waiting again in the Finals. To believe the Cavs can make that a real series, let alone win it, requires considerable faith.

Of course, hanging over everything is the understanding that LeBron may leave at season’s end. He’s an unrestricted free agent, and at 33 years old, with 15 seasons under his belt and trying to reach his ninth Finals, everyone understands he isn’t interested in rebuilding projects or non-contenders. The Cavs aren’t offering much of a supporting cast these days.

He could go to Philadelphia. He could go to Houston. He could go to Los Angeles. Staying in Cleveland seems unlikely, although no one knows, and James, if he’s even focused on it at all, certainly isn’t talking.

As such, Monday could have been his final game as a Cavalier in Cleveland. The victory assured at least one more: Game 6 on Friday. A Finals appearance would deliver two or three more. That’s it though.

Cleveland has been through a post-LeBron decision before. It wasn’t much fun. Does the likeliness of a coming hangover spoil the current party? Should it? How hard is it to get swept up in a rousing playoff run when common sense says it will end badly (in the Finals) and then end altogether (once James takes his talents to … somewhere)?

The unbridled joy in Northeast Ohio over the 2016 NBA championship, ending a pro sports title drought that stretched back to 1964, will forever secure LeBron’s legacy here. The kid from Akron promised a title and he delivered. It may have taken longer — and via a prodigal son’s tale — to do it, but it’s something no one else has been able to accomplish around here.

So, if he leaves this time, there should be disappointment, but not the outrage of last time, when fans burned his jersey, cursed his name and cheered when the owner ripped him in comic sans. Besides, he’d be leaving at the tail end of his career, not his prime.

There should be melancholy, though, that somehow Cleveland had maybe the greatest player of all time for 11 seasons and managed just a single championship. (LeBron won two during his four years in Miami from 2010-14.)

As for James, looking at him you wouldn’t notice any of this swirling around him. It’s not acknowledged. It’s not spoken about. His effort and focus is complete. In the locker room he is having fun. He’s long past caring about the MVP, let alone how loud the MVP chants are. On the court, he is too busy trying to lift the others.

On a night he scored 44, he was quite pleased to spend his time praising his teammates. Monday, he passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most career playoff field goals. He previously bested Michael Jordan for most playoff points. When asked about it, he was reflective of the journey.

“Any time I’m in the same breath with the greats, I know you guys hear me say it over and over, it’s just humbling,” James said. “To know where I come from … and the struggle that I had … the single-parent struggle, small city 35 miles south of here, and to hear I’m in the same category or talked about, and jumping these greats in the playoffs?”

Oh, he’s talked about and always will be. And he’s talked about mainly because of what he did here, across the majority of his career, where he lifted flawed teams and an underdog city.

The latest came courtesy of the quietest 44-point playoff effort you’ll ever not hear about.

How much higher and for how much longer he can keep doing it though hangs over everything here in Cleveland this spring.

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