LeBron facing Game 5 challenge

CLEVELAND -- LeBron James was bedridden and practically unable to talk for days last spring, mostly alone with his thoughts, with the Cleveland Cavaliers' loss in the Eastern Conference finals very fresh in his mind.

Less than 48 hours after the Cavs lost Game 6 in Orlando last May, James had a benign tumor removed from his jaw in a major three-hour procedure in which surgeons had to make a large incision around his ear to get all of the growth. It was in those dark hours when James admitted he was the lowest, the beginning of a seething summer in which he was tormented by the Cavs' defeat in the playoffs.

It was that time that drove James during the 2009-10 season, during which he put up some of the best statistics of his career in capturing his second Most Valuable Player award.

Last month, he reflected on all that as he prepared to start this postseason, the fifth of his career, explaining what he'd been harboring. "It hurt for a long time," James said. "When you've got to hold that in all summer and all regular season to get back to this point. I'll be happy when I get an opportunity to release it."

Those were rather poignant lines from a player who usually guards his emotions, and the media there dutifully reported what James said. Cavs fans were happy to hear it, thinking they were about to witness a driven James who had a strong sense of urgency with the future of the team up in the air.

Sometimes it has looked that way, with James turning in several impressive playoff performances of the type he's trademarked over the past few years. But in the current Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Boston Celtics -- which has turned into a fierce back-and-forth battle between two clubs that have become rivals -- James seems to be living up to his emotions on just a part-time basis. As the series moves back to Cleveland for Tuesday's Game 5, it's tied 2-2 and much tighter than many expected.

The status of James' right elbow has been a popular topic overshadowing his performance. But he's refused to make it an excuse, and his two 35-plus-point games have removed the impulse toward sympathy. The Cavs and James have repeatedly insisted the injury is not serious.

Which has left James' overall effort level curious, because at times he hasn't looked like a man desperate to win a championship.

In Games 1 and 3, he was the difference-making player everyone expects him to be. He demolished the Celtics' defense, just as he did four times during the regular season by overwhelming their various strategies and schemes. He made 26 of 46 shots, averaged the same 36.5 points he averaged in the regular season against Boston and added 14 assists against three turnovers per game. With a relentless attacking mentality, he battered, by turns, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Tony Allen. In James' own words, he was "releasing it."

But half of the time in this series, James has been a shell of himself. In Games 2 and 4, both Celtics victories, James shot just 14-of-33 and averaged only 23.0 points a game, with totals of 12 assists and 12 turnovers.

Every player has poor shooting games, especially against the kind of defenses seen in the playoffs. But it doesn't take an expert to observe that James' problems appear to be deeper than that.

He doesn't seem to be playing with consistent passion or intensity despite facing a dangerous postseason opponent. In the Cavs' losses he's been tentative, showing little or no aggression for long stretches as the Celtics have gained momentum.

On Sunday, James repeatedly went less than full speed on drives and threw unsure and off-target passes that led to turnovers. Twice he seemed to get free for a layup or dunk only to pass off to teammates beyond the 3-point line.

Pressed for his impression, Cavs coach Mike Brown took the Fifth.

"You'll have to talk to him," Brown said, "and ask him what his mindset was throughout the course of the game."

James admitted he was off, but didn't explain his wavering focus.

"It was uncharacteristic of myself," James admitted afterward. "I was inconsistent sometimes."

He's been inconsistent for the entire series and it's wearing on the Cavs, who clearly need him playing at a high level to beat the Celtics.

Meanwhile, he's been getting outplayed. After Rajon Rondo's 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist Game 4, the whispers have become shouts: Rondo has been the series' best player, leading the Celtics in scoring (21.8), rebounding (8.3) and assists (13.0) and shooting 52 percent.

This is James' 13th playoff series, and it's only the second time he hasn't been clearly the best player. The other time was in the 2007 Finals, when he shot just 36 percent while Tony Parker vanquished the Cavs in a Spurs title sweep.

And that's not the only way in which this series is uncharacteristic. Normally when the going has gotten tough, James has made it extremely difficult to get him out.

Last season in the conference finals, though the Cavs eventually came up short against Orlando, he was relentless as he sensed danger and carried his teammates when they struggled. His epic performance included 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game and a memorable buzzer-beater.

Two seasons ago in a seven-game loss to the Celtics, James averaged 26.7 points (the Cavs averaged just 85 as a team) with 6.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists. Four years ago when the Cavs went out in seven games to the Detroit Pistons, James averaged 26.6 points (the Cavs averaged just 80) with 8.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists.

But with his team threatened by the Celtics this time around, James' averages have dipped from his regular-season averages, and his inconsistent effort has driven Cavs fans crazy. And no one is quite sure what to expect in Game 5 or Game 6, which is something seldom said before about the MVP. That's especially troublesome for Cleveland, because his teammates almost always follow his lead.

"There is no explanation for it," Brown said. "We have to do a better job [with intensity]. We talk about it, we preach it, our guys even talk about it and preach it. Now we've just got to go out and do it."

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavs for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. You can read more of his coverage at www.cleveland.com/cavs.