CHICAGO - LeBron James was gunning to become the seventh player in NBA history to score 30,000. The pursuit of immortality was televised around the world and the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland swelled with 20,562 fans ready to explode in celebration.
But what was anticipated to be a milestone night turned out to be a brutal stoning as the Oklahoma City Thunder, who shot an astounding 58 percent from the field, rocked the Cavaliers, 148-124.
Under siege, LeBron managed 18 points, which was seven short of the goal. Good for him because reaching 30K while getting violated by 24 at home would have felt empty, like graduating summa cum laude in law school and then failing spectacularly in the bar exams.
The Cavaliers, 3-9 since December and 27-18 overall, have been concussed by bad losses this season. But this one was different - quick and painful. They fell behind 33-14 after just 7:32 of play in the opening quarter and gave up 76 points at the half..
Against Oklahoma's explosive offense, the Cavaliers' obliging defense didn't stand a chance. It was like alcohol versus the alcoholic, The bottle always wins.
Paul George lit up for 36. Russell Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists while Carmelo Anthony swished 19. Steven Adams, who can be politely disinterested on offense, scored 25 points. The amiable giant from New Zealand couldn't miss even if he tried, making 12 of 13 field goals while cornering 10 boards,
The Thunder made 58 of 100 shots and 14 of 30 triples. They had more trouble making baskets when nobody was guarding, converting just 18 of 28 free throws. But OKC owned the boards 52-28 and had more assists, 37-32. The only thing the Cavs did slightly better was creating more turnovers, 15-13.
A FEW DAYS ago I wrote a column about how these Cavs will struggle getting to their usual place in the NBA Finals this June. It touched an angry cord among several Cavs fans who labeled me a hater and wrongly accused me of being biased (it's an opinion piece, duh!).
But bless my heckled heart, LeBron seems to agree that his team, which is plenty of watts short on star power, simply do not have the horses.
"Playoffs? We can't even start thinking about that, not the way we're playing right now. We could easily get bounced early in the playoffs if they started next weekend," the King told ESPN.
Sadly for the Cavs, things are getting worse not better.
J.R. Smith is AWOL. Tristan Thompson is under performing his $15 million salary. Kevin Love has an illness that forced him out of action after a brief 3-minute appearance against the Thunder. And Dwyane Wade continues to be old and over-the-hill.
Isaiah Thomas is back from a hip injury, finally. But six games into his return, he has more rust than a junked '76 Impala. So far, Thomas is 40-of-101 from the field and 14-of-48 from long distance. I don't know which is worse. his poor shooting or the volume of shots he's taking as a point guard who is supposed to set the table for his teammates.
I initially thought there was trouble in Cleveland's paradise. I was so wrong.
Paradise is burning.
LUE ON THE LOOSE? "Players win games, coaches lose them," so says an old basketball adage. Which is why coaches are always first in the blame line when a team goes in a rut.
Rumors about Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue's job security are running rampant these days. When asked if Lue could be fired after a succession of horrible losses, LeBron James didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement and merely told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "I hope not."
Hired as David Blatt's replacement last January 22, 2016, Lue has a fat contract that pays him $35 million for five years. Firing him would mean paying him the remainder of this season's $7 million paycheck plus another guaranteed $21 million to walk away.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert did not make his billions throwing good money after bad.
But even if, for the sake of argument, Gilbert bites the bullet, a coaching change wouldn't change the tragedy that awaits in the playoffs. Getting rid of Lue, to borrow a 1969 Time magazine quote, would be like "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."