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The waiting game officially tips off

BOSTON -- LeBron James sat in his corner locker room stall with his feet in a bucket of ice water. The evening's box score floated on top of the water-like debris. James leaned down to read the awful truths facing him over the long early summer ahead -- the nine turnovers he was forced to commit in 46 minutes of play, as well as his triple-double of 27 points and 19 rebounds that failed to negate the Celtics' 94-85 victory in Game 6 Thursday.

Boston wins the Eastern semifinal 4-2, and afterward Kevin Garnett looks forward to studying a thick scouting book on the Magic to prepare for the conference final that launches Sunday in Orlando, Fla.

Cleveland loses, and the loss is implosive. Coach Mike Brown is likely to be replaced -- by another Brown, first name of Larry, perhaps? The Cavaliers wanted to hire Larry Brown as team president five years ago, and any hope of salvaging a new contract with James this summer begins with acquiring a sure-thing coach -- even if it means doling out compensation to the Charlotte Bobcats -- who has proven he can deliver a championship. There are only a few such coaches who own a championship ring, and one of them happened to be responsible for wrecking the ambitious dreams that drove the Cavs' grabs for expensive talent over this last lost year.

"The coaching staff gave them a great game plan,'' said James of Celtics coach Doc Rivers and his assistants. "They tried to keep us on the perimeter as much as possible. They got a lot of veteran players that's been in postseason games, and they all just bought into their system and it's worked for them.''

This was a terrific series, and it was based entirely on absolutes. The underdog fourth-seeded Celtics came into the series wondering if this was their last chance at contention between Ray Allen's impending free agency and the injuries that threatened Garnett and Paul Pierce much of the season -- and the urgency with which they won four of the last five games is undeniable proof of how badly they wanted to avoid their own demise.

As No. 1 seed of the playoffs with the two-time MVP, the Cavs should have been playing from a position of strength. But insecurities were their ruin -- resulting in Mo Williams' 1-for-8 second half (after scoring 20 in the opening half) as well as the 2-for-10 performance of midseason acquisition Antawn Jamison, who was supposed to be the finishing piece but instead failed simply to finish.

To blame this series defeat on James is wrong in one sense. In spite of an injured elbow that clearly limited his shooting (he attempted fewer three-pointers than normal and made 26.9 percent -- a rate worse than any season, including his rookie year) he nonetheless averaged 26.8 points and shot 44.7 percent while contributing 9.3 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.3 blocks and, yes, 4.5 turnovers. Those numbers could have been enough to drive the league's best team -- had James been provided support from the likes of sixth man Anderson Varejao, who was enormously ineffective in this series.

Varejao was in the middle of two key second-half sequences that would bury the Cavs. His traveling turnover in the third quarter led to a Pierce three-pointer and then Varejao continued to complain hopelessly that he had been fouled, leaving his teammates to go 4-on-5 as Williams bricked a three-pointer that Garnett converted into a post-up jumper for a 67-58 Celtics advantage. In the fourth Varejao missed one layup, had another blocked by Rasheed Wallace and then was victimized at the other end by both Wallace and Garnett. This is not to pick unfairly on Varejao, but to point out that he had made a positive impact in midseason games against Boston while making so many of the energy plays that Garnett was at that time unable to make. But now Garnett is healthier, and he made Varejao appear to lose all of his powers.

Should the Cavs lose James to free agency this summer, they may look back and wonder if the speculation was self-fulfilling. The pressures to win a championship for Cleveland and keep LeBron to themselves drove the Cavaliers to trade for Shaquille O'Neal and Jamison. In the end, they appeared to be a team overwhelmed by the diversity of its options, and yet unable to execute the simplest plays. For this, Brown will likely be the first to be out of a job.

A big difference between these two franchises was the faith that bonded Rivers to his players and divided Brown from his. All season, Rivers had followed a plan to rest his elders when needed and then force-feed them minutes over the second half of the season, essentially sacrificing precious games in the standings as if they were preseason exhibitions. At times, he appeared to be the only man in Boston who was openly convinced the deteriorating Celtics could win another championship, and the faith he showed in his players was compelling and unifying. At 34, Ray Allen played the best defense of his career while averaging 15.7 points over the series. At 33, Garnett closed out Game 6 with 22 points, 12 rebounds and three assists while delivering from the post more confidently and routinely than during the postseason run to the '08 championship. Likewise, Pierce at 32, recovered from his injuries to hassle James and contributed a trio of crucial three-pointers in the decisive game. Together they believed what everyone else had viewed to be impossible ... and on top of that they added Rajon Rondo's now typical line of 21 points, 12 assists and five steals.

The Cavs viewed Brown, fairly or not, as someone who had been outcoached by Stan Van Gundy during Cleveland's conference finals loss to the Magic last year. Rivers had earned a benefit of the doubt after winning the championship two years ago, but Brown governed without faith in his convictions. And so the pressures to retain James by winning now look very much like the same pressures that resulted in this loss, the loss that threatens to ultimately drive him away.

Celtics fans cleverly raised up Cleveland's worst fears by serenading James with chants of "New York Knicks, New York Knicks,'' as he shot his free throws Thursday. The game and its potentially devastating outcome had grown inseparable.

Does this sound like a break-up speech? "I love the city of Cleveland, of course, the city, the fans,'' said James, who was booed throughout his Game 5 loss, and will be booed even more loudly if he returns next season wearing a different uniform. "It was a disappointing season to say the least, but at the same time we had a great time together."

The Cavs played all-out twice in this series, winning Game 3 to reclaim home-court advantage and then attacking frenetically in vain to extend the season. Why didn't they work so hard throughout the playoffs? The answer is that they were never the real thing, because hard work defines championship teams. It defines the Celtics now, and that is why they will be in Orlando Sunday while James vacations and all around him Cleveland shudders.

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