LeBron James was magnificent in the biggest game of his professional career but with just one slot to fill in the Eastern Conference playoffs, he needed another assist from the Boston Celtics.
It turns out the Celtics were in a benevolent mood on Wednesday, only not to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers but to the New Jersey Nets. Now the Cavs have all summer to think about what might have been.
James' fourth triple-double of the season led Cleveland to a 104-95 victory over the Toronto Raptors in the Air Canada Centre, but the Nets are headed to the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference after defeating the Celtics, 102-93. Cleveland and New Jersey both finished with 42-40 records, but the Nets owned the tiebreaker by winning the season series.
All the Nets needed was a win at Boston and Celtics coach Doc Rivers made it easier when he rested all but one of his starters in the fourth quarter. So James' 27 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists delighted the sellout crowd of 19,800, but accomplished little else.
"It is pretty disappointing but it's something we need to learn from," James said. "I mean there are games that you have to look back on. You know it's just a missed opportunity. You just have to come back next year with a sense of urgency and just don't take things for granted early on in the season that might come back and get you."
It didn't help when the Celtics had a dance of the seven veils with the Cavs, building a 19-point first-half lead against the Nets until it faded into mist by the fourth quarter.
"When we first got the score, Boston was up 17, then they were up 10, then five, four and it just kept going down," James said. "We just needed a little help and we didn't get it."
By February's All-Star break, few would have believed Cleveland would be in a position to need help reaching the playoffs. The Cavs were 30-21 and there was talk of challenging Miami and Detroit for Eastern Conference supremacy. Looking back, perhaps that was fool's gold.
Cleveland had a favorable schedule, playing bottom feeder teams like Atlanta and Charlotte four times each. During a two-week stretch in January the Cavs played Charlotte twice, Atlanta, New York, the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah -- not exactly Murderer's Row -- before meeting a playoff contender in Seattle. After the break, they went 4-9 with losses to Indiana, New Jersey, San Antonio, Seattle, Philadelphia and Miami. During that time a new owner, Dan Gilbert, was brought in.
"We lost to good teams after the All-Star break," guard Eric Snow said. "We had a favorable schedule early, but not a favorable one late and unfortunately we started losing a patch of games here and a patch of games there. We could never get any kind of camaraderie where we stuck with what was working and it got to the point where sometimes you lose games and still do things the right way."
Cleveland was 34-30 following a 105-98 loss on March 20 at Toronto and held the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The next day, coach Paul Silas was fired and replaced by Brendan Malone, a career assistant who was the first head coach of the Toronto Raptors. Cleveland was 8-10 after Silas was dismissed.
Cleveland was in a total freefall and the Nets, after a traded landed them Vince Carter from the Raptors, detonated.
"There were some missed opportunities on the court, and some distractions off the court," James said. "It always catches up with you when you aren't doing things right. You tend to take things for granted. God always makes sure you stay level and he did it to us."
What happens next for Cleveland is anyone's guess. They need a coach (Phil Jackson? Flip Saunders?). A point guard (Dan Dickau? Antonio Daniels?) and a shooter (Ray Allen? Michael Redd? Joe Johnson?) to complement James are priorities. The aforementioned players are all free agents.
And a banger inside to play alongside Zydrunas Ilgauskas would be nice.