LeBron faces first true test of adversity

LeBron James missed 11 of his 14 shots in the Cavaliers' Game 5 loss to the Celtics

BOSTON – LeBron James(notes) lives for the drama to unfold, to leave everyone guessing his next move, next choice, next town. As a 16-year-old, he declared himself to the world by climbing out of a sneaker company limo armed with shades, an entourage and a shirt proclaiming King James. There’s never been a young player deliver on the hype – even exceed it – the way that he’s done. There’s never been a young NBA star so swept away with the trappings of his celebrity, fame and a world available to a two-time MVP.

For him, everything came fast and felt like it came easy for someone as physically and mentally sculpted – even scripted – as James. Everything he’s ever done was too soon, far ahead of timetables and expectations. He’s 25 years old and the clock had never ticked on him. It ticked on Cleveland to keep him, on New York to lure him, but he’s never had a single, solitary endeavor considered a failure.

This changes for Game 6 at the Garden on Thursday night, because time and patience and urgency have dictated this to him. No one will believe the Cavaliers didn’t have the talent to beat the Boston Celtics, that they weren’t constructed for a trip to the NBA Finals.

What appeared to be a physical issue with LeBron’s elbow early in the Eastern Conference semifinals turned into something perhaps more perplexing, more troublesome: a mentally checked-out James, on and off the floor. When the Cavs needed him most in a humiliating Game 5 loss, James looked like he was in a sedated state, a trance, a thousand miles away. The reaction of Cleveland fans has been resounding and remarkable. There’s a sense of almost betrayal in their voices, a fear that maybe he isn’t just leaving them this summer in free agency, but that he’s already gone.

With James, who knows? Maybe this is one big rope-a-dope, a purposeful Game 5 pout to show everyone how he can hang a season out the window of a high-rise before plucking it out of harm’s way. Already, James and his inner circle appear ready to try to make coach Mike Brown the fall guy. Brown probably wouldn’t keep his job with a loss in the conference finals to Orlando again, never mind the semis against Boston.

Yet James needs to elevate these Cavs on Thursday and again on Sunday unless he wants to discover the wrath that came for great players until they won titles. As a superstar, an MVP, the burden of proof is on you. Boston is the worst possible hurdle for him now, a smart, tough and well-schooled defensive team with a history of controlling him. Privately, the Celtics hope James will try to do too much scoring in Game 6 just to silence the noise, because they know that a collapsing defense leaves gaps for teammates everywhere on the floor.

James has it in him to completely dominate these next two games, to transform himself from the maligned MVP into the triumphant conqueror of critics. What he refuses to acknowledge is that the immensity of his talent is a big part why people are apt to come down so hard on him. Still, circumstances have changed for him. There’s too much talent on these Cavs and too much of a cast for James to slip out of this series untouched. He loves the drama, loves the attention and it comes in Game 6 with a fury that he’s never witnessed in his life.

Whatever his issues now, his motives, give him this: He’s managed to make Thursday night one of the most-anticipated playoff games in years, maybe a decade, and that speaks to the power of his persona, the genius of his talent. After all these years, the clock has caught up with him. He’s 25 years old, a two-time MVP and this is a night to stop acting surprised that the world wants something more out of him. It’s time, King James. It’s here.