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Loss doesn’t throw Cavs

James content to tweak Celtics

By Gary Washburn
April 5, 2010

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Before LeBron James had an opportunity to decompress and reflect, he walked off the TD Garden court and popped his Cavaliers jersey following the 117-113 loss to the Celtics yesterday, a gesture to let Boston fans and a national television audience know that Cleveland remains the favorite in the Eastern Conference.

That was proven when the Cavaliers rallied from a 22-point deficit to take two 1-point leads late in the game. Without Shaquille O’Neal, Anderson Varejao, and ejected coach Mike Brown, the Cavaliers nearly caused the Celtics to waste a sparkling effort with one big fourth-quarter run.

The flashing of his jersey was a signal that James remains supremely confident in his team’s ability to reach and win the Finals. The Celtics stand as an obstacle down the road, but they couldn’t blow away a hobbling Cavaliers team that had little to play for besides the satisfaction of spoiling Easter for the Celtics faithful.

They rode James, who seemingly looked at the scoreboard following the third period (the Celtics were leading, 98-81) and shouted in the huddle, “C’mon boys, let’s put a scare into them.’’

And he did.

With the Celtics ahead just a basket, James made the bold but justifiable decision to pull up for a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left and go for the win. Making the shot possibly would have extinguished the Celtics’ fragile confidence and left them reeling at an inopportune time. Missing it, which is what James did, only allowed the Celtics and their fans to exhale and wipe their drenched brows — until the next time.

James sent many messages to the Celtics yesterday, and they had long-term repercussions. The most important was that the Cavaliers will be difficult to beat because they don’t relent, a reflection of their leader. And secondly, the road to the Finals will go through Cleveland, regardless of how well the Celtics finish the regular season.

The question for the Celtics is whether they have the ability to beat Cleveland four times in a series. James let the Celtics know any victory will be exhausting. If Boston had continued to cruise, it would have felt confident about its ability to beat the Cavaliers. But the Celtics didn’t, so the feelings were mixed and they left the Garden with a sense of uncertainty. James enjoys producing that anxiety.

He picked up a technical foul with 9:02 left for arguing a phantom foul call on Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and the Cavaliers went on a 23-9 run and took the lead twice before finally falling, but James didn’t leave without barking back at Kevin Garnett and Tony Allen when both approached him with comments. The war of words only exacerbated this brewing rivalry and in James’s eyes only will make the process of eliminating the Celtics sweeter.

“It’s a good win for them, a really good win for them,’’ he said. “It could have been a really good win for us. Every team knows that it’s hard to get up for every game, but you have to find that small edge that’s going to keep you going throughout the night.’’

The motivation for James was to slap the Celtics into a tailspin with a stirring comeback, and he almost pulled it off.

When asked whether an opposing team would be capable of rallying from 22 points down to win in Cleveland, James said, smiling, “That’s a set-up question. It hasn’t happened. I don’t see it happening. But it’s still a set-up question.’’

So without actually saying it, James indicated that he believes what just happened against the Celtics would never happen in northeast Ohio. Sometimes the fear of defeat is even more effective and damaging than the defeat itself, and the Celtics left the proceedings with a queasy feeling, relieved more than motivated by their victory.

The psychology of sport sometimes is more fascinating than the actual sport. James knew the Cavaliers may not have been able to make it all the way back, but the thrill created by the rally and the chaos it nearly caused were good enough for James to smile gleefully after the game.

Cleveland left Boston with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs following the Lakers’ 19-point home loss to San Antonio. The Cavaliers have five meaningless games left, likely to be used for Ilgauskas and Varejao to get more court time together and perhaps to get O’Neal back and in shape.

James was quick to remind reporters that Cleveland was not at full strength. The Cavaliers will enter the playoffs with three capable big men in addition to a rested James to tackle a barely .500 first-round opponent, and then perhaps Boston or Atlanta.

“What we did [yesterday] was good for our team,’’ he said. “I don’t know what [the Celtics] are thinking down there, I don’t know what’s going on in their locker room, but for me, we’re not hanging our heads about this loss at all.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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