CLEVELAND -- Facing LeBron James can be like swimming in shark-infested waters. The fear is not necessarily what is happening, but what could happen. The monster is down there, circling, just as James is out there, lurking. He might not strike now, but he will. Oh yes, he will.
This certainty is what Cleveland sports fans have lived with for ages, though on the wrong side of the ledger. They experienced it with Michael Jordan and with John Elway. No matter the situation, the terror was that at some point, and most likely late in the game, those killers would open their jaws and inhale everything in their path.
The unfairness of it was that Cleveland did not drop the hammer with any of its sports heroes. Not since Jim Brown has there been that one Cleveland athlete who other athletes dread.
But now he is out there, lurking. James did not take a shot for the first 4:10 of the Cavaliers' Eastern Conference finals opener against the Orlando Magic, and he did not score a point until 3:42 remained in the first quarter -- and it came on a goaltending call.
And the Cavs still led 25-14. Now that is scary.
James eventually made up for lost time, finishing with a playoff career-high 49 points.
There is a downside, however, to the fear factor. If a team need worry only about the big shark, then James' effectiveness diminishes. He becomes the predator swimming in a tank, still deadly but more containable. That had been Cleveland's weakness since LeBron arrived in 2003 -- too many Cavs standing and watching him do it all -- until Mo Williams arrived this season. Things changed. James stopped dribbling to the wing, which stalls the offense, as Williams became a scoring threat.
But the old demons returned last night in the Cavs' 107-106 loss to the Magic.
"Offensively, we were more stagnant in the second half," Cavs coach Mike Brown said.
Orlando outscored Cleveland 18-10 with James on the bench, which allowed them to make up a 15-point halftime deficit.
"The one thing about our team is it is resilient," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "But LeBron just made it so difficult. One thing, I leave this game having no idea whatsoever what to do with him. As a coach you're supposed to know, but I have no clue."
Here's a hint: If the Cavs are to deliver Cleveland its first championship in any sport since 1964, they must make sure James does not swim alone. Mo Williams and Delonte West, who became careless with their shot selection at times against Orlando, must be smarter. At one point James was shooting 16 of 24 while the rest of the team was 17 of 42. The defense on Dwight Howard must improve, as must the perimeter defense.
James is nothing if not a presence. His potential alone is dangerous, forcing opponents to design defenses specifically with him in mind. But he cannot do it alone. Just as Jordan needed help, so does the King. Feared or not.
If James' teammates step up, the Cavs will be OK.
Cavs big man Joe Smith, who has played against James, summed up the emotions involved with playing against him, saying he sees no reason why opposing teams would not shudder.
"If I was on the other team, I would (be afraid)," he said.
But he would also be up one game to none. Now, it's Cleveland's turn to worry about what's in the water.