By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist
Did you know NBA commissioner Adam Silver was so worried about the league’s TV ratings that he rang up LeBron James and told him to take it easy on the Celtics?
But then, I didn’t know Michael Jordan’s first retirement was actually a “secret suspension” imposed by former commissioner David Stern for gambling. Or that the league slipped an envelope with a bent corner into the drum at the 1985 draft lottery so Stern could reach in and effectively hand projected No. 1 pick Patrick Ewing over to the struggling New York Knicks.
So why let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory?
What this season’s playoffs lack in drama, they’re quickly making up for with suspicion. No sooner had last week’s wild draft lottery dropped off the radar of the league’s devoted UFO spotters (“Lemme guess: Boston goes first, then Lakers at No. 2?) when up popped Game 3 Sunday between the Celtics and Cavaliers.
Everybody knows the conference finals are just a tune-up for the Cavs’ inevitable — or as conspiracy theorists call it, “pre-ordained” — rematch with Golden State for the championship belt. But a day later, more than a few fans are still wondering how Boston stole a game in Cleveland in which they were: a.) 16-point underdogs to start; b.) without their best player, the injured Isaiah Thomas; and c.) 21 points behind with seven minutes left in the third quarter.
So let us count the ways, beginning with King James.
He’s the best player in the game. He has rarely been hotter or had more incentive to shine. The Cavs had a 13-game unbeaten streak going with James in top form, on the verge of penciling in his name above those of Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the playoff record books.
Then came this stink bomb.
“I didn’t have it,” James said afterward, and that was no understatement. He scored 11 points total and just three, on 1-for-9 shooting, as Boston went on a rampage throughout the second half.
A moment later, he added, “That’s all I’ve got to say about my performance.”
One measure of how reliable James has become at this time of year is that some people don’t buy that explanation. But a quick review of the record shows this wasn’t his only playoff clunker.
James shot 2-for-18 against Boston in 2008 and similarly disappeared against those same Celtics in Game 5 in 2010. And don’t forget his classic Game 4 no-show against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, when he totaled just eight points.
In fact, those games should be easy to remember because they are so rare. And speaking of rare, even leaving aside the odds and the arc both teams were tracing, there are a few other things that should not have happened in Game 3 but did.
First, Avery Bradley made the game-winner with 0.1 left on the clock. Next, some guy named Jonas Jerebko, who spends enough time on the bench to practice shots from there, got on the floor and went a perfect 4-for-4. Most important, Marcus Smart, a third-year point guard filling in for Thomas, did a passable imitation of James himself, scoring 28 on 7-for-10 shooting from three-point range — after averaging less than 30 percent from that distance all season.
Don’t be fooled. Las Vegas bookmakers looked at that monumental upset, shrugged, re-evaluated and then promptly knocked the Cavs down to a 15-point favorite ahead of Game 4.
So even if Silver was tempted to make the call, there’s almost zero chance of a salvage job.
Without injured star Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs surrendered in four straight, and the hubbub over James’ miserable Game 3 showing guarantees he won’t disappear in the series again.
And as WWE star Steve Austin used to say before the big event in another sport much-beloved by conspiracy theorists: “And That’s the Bottom Line ‘Cuz Stone Cold Said So!”