Truth is, LeBron must deal with pain

BOSTON -- Three-day midweek breaks in hotly contested playoff series are good for a couple of things.

One is to let some injuries heal a little with the help of rest and treatment. The other is conspiracy theories.

There were indeed both over the last few days for LeBron James. His Cleveland Cavaliers are tied 1-1 in an Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Boston Celtics, and questions continue to surround his right elbow heading into Friday's Game 3.

What once was regarded as a minor defect that was barely on the radar has become a full-blown wild card on the playoff map. It was amped up when James had to take a left-handed free throw because of discomfort toward the end of the Cavs' closeout Game 5 against the Chicago Bulls last week in their first-round series. Then it reached a new level when he played lethargically and tentatively for stretches in the first two games against the Celtics, including an uninspiring effort in the Cavs' Game 2 blowout loss.

The theories on the severity of the injury mushroomed as a result, fed by everything from health-care professionals contacting the Cavs to offer help to Europe-based Web blogs issuing unsubstantiated reports that James is involved in a cover-up and can barely lift a basketball.

The Cavs themselves didn't really help matters. With a slip of the tongue, coach Mike Brown on Tuesday led reporters to believe James was about to head to the hospital for his third MRI on the mysterious injury. That alone was enough to create mild panic in greater Cleveland.

Even if the truth was that James had just one MRI, the day after he had a triple-double in the Cavs' Game 4 win over the Bulls 11 days ago, a wave of uncertainty spread.

By the time James actually gave an update on his elbow, which he was seen massaging in an attempt to alleviate pain before Monday's loss, there was some assumption that it was part of a strategy to downplay how injured he might be.

James If you're dribbling up and down the court and you can feel a twinge or you feel [the elbow] lock up, it's going to stop you from doing some things that you usually would be able to do.

-- Cavs forward LeBron James

"It felt good today," James said Thursday. "It didn't flare up at all. We had contact drills and I was able to go through the whole practice and it didn't flare up one time, so that's a good sign. It's still a little bit sore, but it's much better. I did treatment the last two days and I believe it will be fine for the game."

Those treatments have included electric stimulation, ice and elevation. Not acupuncture, magnets or prayer, as some have e-mailed the Cavs to suggest.

According to multiple team sources, despite James' obviously sluggish play in parts of the first two games, team doctors believe the injury is not serious. They did not feel the need to give James a follow-up MRI before Game 3, something the team said it might do.

If there is something seriously wrong with James, it hasn't been discovered (or revealed) yet, and doctors say they are confident it's something that needs rest to heal.

James admits it has affected his game, but he says the reason he's been a little off against Boston -- though he averaged 29.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 49 percent shooting in the two games -- isn't so much because of the elbow but learning to cope with the injury.

When the Cavs got behind early to the Celtics in both games, James seemed to suddenly shake problems to lead comebacks. It worked in Game 1 and he scored 12 points in the fourth quarter. He tried it again in Game 2, scoring 12 points in the fourth, but not getting as much help from his teammates.

Those sudden spurts have made it tough to understand exactly what James is fighting and only generate more questions. James attempted to answer some of them.

"If it's hurting throughout the game; there's no way it can stay off your mind," James said.

"You want to be conscious about it, but at the same time, I've got to be able to pull through it and find a way to try to help the team. It doesn't change my approach. But if you're dribbling up and down the court and you can feel a twinge or you feel it lock up, it's going to stop you from doing some things that you usually would be able to do. It is what it is and I've got to play with it."

Part of that management, James said, is to play with more aggression despite what the elbow might be feeling like. He took just nine shots in the first three quarters of Game 2, just one of them a jumper, and the Cavs found themselves down 20 points.

"I can't go a whole first half and only take five shots," James said. "I have to be more aggressive, try to get more shot attempts up."

The shot attempts, though, have been only part of the issue. James hasn't been the same on defense from tipoff to final horn, sometimes avoiding contact. He also hasn't been as active as a passer. He had just four assists in Game 2, his fewest since Jan. 25.

Nonetheless, James and his teammates are taking the stance that the Most Valuable Player and the team are fine.

"He's a warrior; you guys talk more about [the elbow] than he does," Cavs center Shaquille O'Neal said. "He's going to play through it. He's not going to make any excuses. His elbow has nothing to do with our team defense. Everyone has to do their part."

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