CLEVELAND – Mike Brown began bellowing "Timeout … timeout," but no one could hear him. This had turned into one of those nightmares when your screams go silent.
Trailing by a basket, the Cleveland Cavaliers came down the court with 24 seconds left Tuesday night. They brought the ball down the floor and started to consider a shot, but no one ever turned to the bench.
"I knew where the ball needed to be," Brown said.
Mostly, he knew where it needed to stay.
The season was on the line, and LeBron James needed to take the shot.
What part of that doesn't he understand?
Somehow, the San Antonio Spurs had let the Cavaliers have this puncher's chance at the end of Game 3, and Brown was speechless. Here was everything for Cleveland, and from the right side, James never did make his move to the rim.
In the end, he dropped the ball down to everyman Anderson Varejao, who turned, contorted and lobbed a pitiful shot off the side of the rim.
It never had a chance.
Nor did the Cavaliers.
"I hollered all the way up until Andy shot the ball," Brown said.
James didn't need his coach to tell him it was time to take the shot, take the moment, because you don't get the commercials, the billboards, the endorsements – you don't get the world – without taking that shot there.
"I was definitely going to get the ball back from (Varejao)," said James, who definitely didn't get the ball back from Varejao.
Eventually, James missed a three-pointer in the final two seconds of the 75-72 loss, and soon, one of the worst NBA finals spits and sputters to the inevitable ending of a Spurs championship. San Antonio is on the threshold now, leading three games to none, and it'll sweep the Cavs at the expense of James' stunted legacy.
We are witnesses, all right. We are witnesses to the truth that James is trailing Dwyane Wade as the sport's best young superstar, a gap that he didn't close in these finals.
Before you say that Wade had Shaquille O'Neal in last year's finals, remember that Shaq was a mere mortal against the Mavericks. No one is asking James to bring the Cavaliers all the way back, just show up with them. He never did. As overmatched as they are, James hasn't had the constitution to make one game his own.
Cleveland earned its way to the Eastern Conference championship, but this is too much, too soon for this franchise. Before the game, former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said that he thought five Western Conference teams could beat the Cavaliers in the finals. "And you can make a case for six and seven too, Denver and Golden State," Van Gundy said. "The disparity between the East and West has never been greater at any time since I've been in the league."
The Spurs played pitifully for most of Tuesday night, the kind of flat-lined, let-'em-hang-around game that LeBron's greatness should've stolen. He did score 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, but he never took the ball to the rim or took that shot that Varejao did with 13.9 seconds left in the game. Some wanted to blame Bruce Bowen for grabbing James on the three-pointer in the final seconds, but LeBron had a clear look on his miss.
He was going to save these finals from America's unwanted guest, San Antonio. The Spurs never were going to lose this series, ever, but James' burden is unique. He isn't playing simply San Antonio. He has Michael Jordan. He has Wade. So much hangs over him. And he has done nothing to cast himself into the context of history. He's 22 years old. He has time, yes. But don't be so sure that it won't be the Bulls making several years of runs to the finals instead of the Cavaliers.
Bowen has done a spectacular job shadowing James, and the constant crush of additional defenders has cramped his space. James has struggled to get to the basket. When he's made it there, he's missed layups. "Bunnies," he called them. "They rimmed out."
But when LeBron said, "This is all about them," he is suggesting that he doesn't share in the responsibility for his own lousy series. "You've got to give all the props to the Spurs and all the props to coach Pop (Gregg Popovich) and his staff," he said. He had no such props for Mike Brown, who wished someone, anyone, would've heard him screaming at the Q on Tuesday, desperate for a timeout. He was down a basket, and he wanted the shot where it belonged, with LeBron James.
It was his time. His moment. He passed the ball away, saying later that he believed it would come back to him. He never should've risked it. No, Anderson Varejao isn't paid his money to take that shot, let alone make it. These are the NBA finals, and that's James' job. It comes with everything.
What part of that doesn't he understand?