BOSTON - LeBron James chirped at teammates and shook his head, exasperated. He furrowed his distinctive brow and heaved sighs to the heavens. He dribbled the ball out of bounds, more than once, finishing with six turnovers. His final numbers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals were good - 26 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and 11-for-22 shooting - but not good enough, not when the Cavaliers needed him, yet again, to be transcendent.
Over the course of Cleveland's long slog of a loss, 96-83, to the Celtics, James just couldn't summon that transcendence. His well of legendary performances for his hometown team could well be running dry, and by the time he sat at the podium for his postgame interview here, it was easy to imagine that we're heading into the final weekend of the second act of LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier.
There is much yet to be determined ahead of that obituary, of course. The Celtics will need to beat James and the Cavs in either Game 6 on Friday in Cleveland or win a Game 7 at home on Sunday. Should that happen, James would then need to be wooed away from the Cavs in free agency in early July. Any observer of James' past free-agent excursions knows that will be a drawn-out frenzy of rumour and drummed-up drama, and in the end, James could wind up back in Cleveland with a new contract.
But there has not been much in this series that makes the Cavaliers look like the kind of team to which James, who turns 34 in December, would want to hitch his wagon as he gallops into the NBA sunset. It could be here, in the next few days, that James' remarkable streak of seven straight NBA Finals appearances comes crashing down.
"I've never went to any season saying, 'OK, let's have a Finals streak,'" James said. "It's just all about just win every game, and it should put us in position to play for a championship. I've been in championship mode since probably '09. We weren't able to get there then. Obviously, I made the move to Miami. I was able to go there four straight. And three straight since I've been back here.
"It just happens because I've been able to play with some great players, play with some great teammates, coaching staffs that have been able to put us in position to go to The Finals."
On Wednesday, the players were not so great. His team shot 41.9 percent from the field and 26.5 percent from the 3-point line. That was including James' solid night. The players around James shot 20-for-52, or 38.5 percent from the field. The backcourt of George Hill and JR Smith was 2-for-11 for nine points combined. Coach Tyronn Lue, who has not been able to see past Kyle Korver's defensive liabilities, played Korver just 18:37 on a night in which his team mustered 83 points.
The guys the Cavs brought in at the trade deadline besides Hill - the three 20-somethings who were supposed to be part of a younger, rebuilt foundation for the future - didn't do much to impact the game. Larry Nance Jr. played 17 good minutes, but took one shot and scored two points. Jordan Clarkson was 3-for-10 from the field for eight points. Rodney Hood was scraped off the bench only for three minutes of garbage-time action.
The extent to which those players figure into the Cavs' long-term plans can be argued. But in the short term, they were mostly terrible.
"When we're playing fast, playing with pace and taking care of the basketball, those guys benefit," Lue said. "We didn't do that tonight. We really didn't move bodies. It was stationary a little bit. We've just got to look at the tape. We've got to be better, which I know we will in Game 6, going back home.
"But we've just got to show some grit, some toughness, mentally and physically, being tougher."
It would be up to James in Game 5, and he showed that he has his limitations. He is 33 and, hard though it may be to believe sometimes, is subject to aging. He played 3,026 regular-season minutes this year, the most he's played since 2011 when he was 26. He has played 648 playoff minutes, most in the league, giving him the most combined regular season-playoff minutes he's played in his career since 2012-13 when he was 28.
Who's going to be able to come up with supernatural output in late May with that kind of wear-and-tear? Not James, not on this night.
"He looked a little tired to me, yes," Lue said of James.
James shrugged that off.
"I had my moments," he said. "But I think everybody at this point is tired or worn down or whatever the case may be. Still trying to make plays to help our team win, put us in position to win. We had moments. We had an opportunity, but we didn't make enough plays."
So we go into Friday's Game 6 of this series with the surprising, young Celtics - 20-year-old Jayson Tatum starred on Wednesday with 24 points - on the verge of putting an end to this trying season for James, sending him and the Cavs franchise into the uncertainty of free agency.
The Boston fanbase is rightfully wary of what James might do in the next game or two, having seen him pull off the improbable before (notably, in the 2012 postseason, when he scored 45 points in a masterly Game 6 win in the East finals that helped propel Miami to the championship).
But the Cavs have a woefully thin and unpredictable roster. They ask a lot of James at all times, and too much of him at others. It's taken its toll on him, as was clear in Game 5.
On the brink of elimination, that could cost them this series. Beyond that, with James on the brink of exiting Cleveland, it could cost them the game's best player.