— AND - LeBron James would not duplicate his last-second heroics of Game 2. His shot from the far reaches of Amway Arena banged off the glass and to the floor Tuesday night in Game 4, sending James and his Cavaliers teammates back here in a 3-1 deficit.
They came home to no pomp and circumstance.
The tenor of the times is a sad refrain that has followed Cleveland and its sports teams for the better part of 40 years: wait until next year.
While in the NBA — or in any league, really — it’s inappropriate to bury a team now when the possibility exists you might have to praise it later. But the Cavs’ struggles against the Orlando Magic have brought Cleveland fans to the precipice of yet-another disappointment.
They had looked at this postseason as the one that would, finally, bring a championship to their city. They had gotten caught up in the LeBron-mania and in a team that boasted the best record in the NBA this season.
The easy ride through the first two rounds stoked emotions here to a white-hot fever. The Cavs were the toast of the town — and of the NBA. The advertisers trotted out flashy commercials that seemed to say the Finals were preordained: LeBron and the Cavs vs. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Now, it looks as if one half of that made-for-prime-time showcase will surely be missing. One loss away from elimination, the Cavs face some of the longest odds for survival Thursday night in Game 5. Teams bounce back to advance from 3-1 deficits as often as Roger Federer beats Rafael Nadal on clay.
So rare are these occasions that Cleveland fans, refusing to delude themselves, have begun their mourning. Talk radio here is lording over the remains of the season as if giving a eulogy. People are picking apart what went wrong — how a team that looked like a champion had stopped playing like a champion, how anything this well tailored frayed at the seams.
But inside all this despair is a reticence to voice a simple truth: The better team is winning. This is a redo of the NBA Finals of 2007 when the Cavs lost to the San Antonio Spurs; the better team won. This is a redo of the 1995 World Series when the Cleveland Indians lost to the Atlanta Braves; the better team won. This is not the upset of the ’97 World Series when the Tribe lost to the Florida Marlins; the better team lost.
Nobody cried in ’07 when the Cavs lost to the Spurs. In that NBA Finals, people here got their first taste of what life among the glitterati was like. They enjoyed it. They had been hopeful their Cavs could defeat the more seasoned Spurs, but people here knew, deep down inside, that their Cavs were a piece or two away from being as good as San Antonio.
Since then, those pieces have arrived. The Cavs have added Mo Williams, Delonte West and Ben Wallace to complement James, whose all-round play has improved to the point where his name is mentioned among the greats of the game.
The rest of the league has improved, too. The competition at the top of the league has not stagnated. All the elite teams are better, and the Magic have gone from a young team with an emerging star in Dwight Howard to a team with as much offensive firepower as any in the game.
Howard and the Magic create a matchup hell for opponents, a fact that has displayed itself throughout the four games in this Eastern Conference finals. Game 5 at The Q might not be much different.
And if it’s not different, Cleveland fans will be waiting until 2010, hoping then that James and the Cavaliers can do what the Indians or Browns aren’t built to do just yet: win a championship.