Cleveland can't bear to witness another heartbreak

CLEVELAND -- A knockoff "Witness" T-shirt was being worn by the first person I came across this morning, a hotel concierge lounge host in his late 50s or early 60s who immediately assured me he was not getting his hopes up too high.

I poured a cup of coffee, picked up the Cleveland Plain Dealer and started reading a column on Page A1 headlined: "Are You Ready to Believe?" In the second graph, the writer asked: "Will our hearts be broken again?" Paragraph No. 4 referenced The Drive, The Fumble and The Shot -- nicknames for three unforgettable moments in this city's playoff history that everyone wishes they could forget.

Clearly, the folks in this town have a bit of a defeatist streak running through their collective consciousness, and I guess I can understand why. I scour my brain for a positive snapshot of the Cavs' past, and I draw a blank. The only highlight reel that comes to mind is Craig Ehlo's trying to defend a last-second shot by Michael Jordan, and we all remember how that ended.

You can count the positive moments in Cavs history on one hand, with a couple extra fingers to spare. They won the draft lottery in 2003, they reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1992 by defeating the Boston Celtics in Larry Bird's final game, and they made it to that same round in 1976 by knocking off the defending conference champion Washington Bullets in Game 7.

But that's about it for a franchise that has won only 35 postseason games in its 36 years of existence, two fewer wins than the Detroit Pistons have accumulated in just the past three years.

They just don't do championships in Cleveland, and decades worth of defeats have made this the Gloom Capital of the Midwest. The Indians haven't won the World Series since 1948, coming up short against the Braves in 1995 and the Marlins in 1997; the Browns haven't been champions of the NFL since 1964; and before this spring rolled around, the last time the Cavs had even made the playoffs was 1998.

Things have been so bad for so long, in fact, that Clevelanders are having a hard time coming to grips with the reality that they may just have the better team in this Eastern Conference semifinals series against Detroit. This, despite the fact that the series has swung decisively in their favor, with the Cavs winning the past three games to take a 3-2 lead over the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions.

Game 6 tips off at 7 p.m. ET tonight, and the only folks with as much fear and apprehension as Cleveland's fans may just be the Pistons themselves, whose legacy is suddenly at stake.

No longer do the Pistons appear as untouchable as they were throughout the regular season, and the sight of their playing tight and scared in Game 5 was just about as shocking as the final score itself.

This is the first time all season Detroit has lost three straight games, and the Pistons have found themselves as clueless as Washington was in the first round when it comes to finding a way to stop LeBron James. Quite suddenly, the Pistons are being exposed as a team with warts, from coach Flip Saunders' endgame management to Rasheed Wallace's height disadvantage against Zydrunas Ilgauskas to Tayshaun Prince's offensive disappearing act to Ben Wallace's Shaquillian free-throw shooting. (He was 0-for-7 from the line in Game 5, including two critical misses with 40.3 seconds left that left the score tied 84-84. Think that'll cost him a few dollars this summer when he becomes a free agent?)

"Everybody is to blame for us being down 3-2," Chauncey Billups said. "It's not just Flip. It's not myself. It's everybody. We're the best in the league at being a team, and now that we've lost a couple of games, everybody wants us to point fingers. That's not what we do."

The Pistons will enter Game 6 with their confidence intact, or at least that's what they're claiming. The Cavs will lace 'em up knowing they are on the verge of pulling off one of the most stunning upsets the league has seen for the better part of a decade, and the key to the game may just be whether the collective apprehension of their fans carries over into their locker room.

The only thing they've witnessed consistently in this town is disappointment, and being within one victory of nirvana is not enough to wipe decades worth of doubt from Cleveland's collective consciousness.

"We're hoping," said the waitress at Sportsman's Deli, the downtown restaurant shown advertising a special sandwich, the quadruple-double, in James' latest Nike commercial. "We've got to think positive."

Wait a minute. Did I just hear a glimmer of optimism? I pressed her on the issue, and she made a confession: She really doesn't like sports, and she doesn't really follow the Cavs. That explains why she might have been one of the few people walking the rainy downtown streets this morning who wasn't expecting the worst.

Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.