CLEVELAND – They knew something was different. While the talk was there, the walk certainly was not. The same man who would provide games of 40 and 37 points just days prior was not nearly as typically aggressive. And then with seven seconds remaining in a four-point game, he was forced to take a free throw with his left hand as his right hand was numb.
Rare is it that a city's team can win the deciding game in a playoff series, and yet its celebration be so subdued. The Cavaliers were the victors by two points in a very competitive game over the Chicago Bulls - the first playoff series win over the Bulls in the history of the franchise - yet the city of Cleveland is fixated on the right elbow of All-Star forward LeBron James.
"I don't know, honestly, what's going on [with it]," James said after the game. "I've done tests to try and figure this thing out, but it almost feels like you hit your funny bone and it kind of numbs up for a little bit. After I shot the first (free throw late in the game), that's exactly what it did. I wasn't even going to even try and shoot the second one."
The Cavaliers fan base stands with jaws agape. This was supposed to be the year. Danny Ferry played the most successful game of NBA Supermarket Sweep in recent history - Shaquille O'Neal, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and Antawn Jamison are all integral pieces to what looks to be an NBA Championship puzzle. And now the best player in the league has a shooting arm that goes numb in the final stages of a game?
The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. The Blown Save. And now... The Elbow?
Despite the tendency to have a "woe is us" approach when it comes to their teams, could one fault Cleveland faithful for being uneasy as their team heads into the series against the Boston Celtics?
When asked about the obvious roller coaster of emotions going on inside the heads of his fans, James was quick to offer reassurance.
"I'm not concerned [about the elbow]," said James. "I just want to try and get a better sense of what it may be, but Cleveland fans have nothing to be worried about. I'm healthy, I'm ready and we are looking forward to the second round. They don't have any reason to panic."
But what about the shot attempts? Obviously the elbow hindered James through the entire game despite his pre-game assertion that he was "ready to play."
"I was able to stick with the game plan," said James. "Antawn had it going. Shaq played extremely well. It was one of those games where every possession counted, offensively and defensively. When I had to make plays offensively, I was able to do that."
The beauty of James' game is that he can create for his teammates. However, the leverage on creation decreases if opposing teams are able to focus more attention on the supporting cast, daring James to test out that elbow. However, James did mention that the elbow has been bothering him off and on for almost three weeks.
The first round of the playoffs fell well within that three week span; a series where James averaged a mere 31.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 2.4 blocked shots.
Shaquille O'Neal seemed comfortable with the situation.
"He's a tough kid," said O'Neal. "Tomorrow we're going to take a day off. I'm sure he'll come in and get some treatment. We have a couple of days. Hopefully, it's nothing bad. He's a tough kid, unanimous MVP, and he'll be fine."
A lot of this chatter, while likely persisting throughout the duration of the postseason, will subside come Saturday when James suits up once again. Once that first shot drops, there will be a collective sigh of relief from the 20,000-plus packing Quicken Loans Arena. But until then, all Cleveland has to cling to are the words of James and teammates like Shaq.
"We have the best doctors in Cleveland and they will figure it out," said James. "We will be fine."