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CAVALIERS 107, CELTICS 104

Cavs don't cave in

Celtics cannot finish comeback

LeBron James brought out the fans and the stars last night. He did not disappoint, whether it was an 83-foot 3-pointer to end the third quarter, a back-to-the-basket guide-in at the end of the half, or one of his ultra-elevated alley-oops that come at any time. Let's just say that no one left TD Banknorth Garden asking for his money back.

In an entertaining game that went down to the last shot, the Celtics, once again, came up short, dropping a 107-104 decision to the Cleveland Cavaliers before a full house (18,624), most of whom were on their feet for the final minutes. The Celtics rallied from an 11-point hole in the fourth, got a number of eye-opening performances from their young'uns, but didn't have enough to overcome James's 32 points or the season-high 27 from Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Boston now has dropped six of seven since Paul Pierce, a spectator on the bench, went down with a left foot stress reaction.

Nonetheless, Boston had two decent chances to tie the game in the final 8.3 seconds. First, Tony Allen was fouled on a drive and had two free throws to make it 105-105. He barely hit the rim with the first, necessitating a foul on James with 7.6 ticks left. James coolly made them both. Then Wally Szczerbiak was sprung free for a very good look at what would have been a tying 3-pointer at the buzzer. It went wide left. According to Doc Rivers, everything went as planned on that final sequence, save for Szczerbiak's trajectory.

"It was perfect," Rivers said of the play. "But you can see that Wally's balance is still off."

Szczerbiak, who was 4 for 13 from the field, said he had a perfect look. But he has been in a shooting slump in the five games since returning from the second of two ankle sprains.

"When the coach draws up the play, and the play is executed properly, it's up to the individual to make the shot when he gets it and, right now, I'm not doing that," he said.

The miss, however, did not put a complete damper on the night from the Celtics' standpoint. There are losses (against the Sixers, Knicks) and there are losses (last night), and Rivers liked an awful lot of what he saw. Allen continued his December-January surge with 22 points. Al Jefferson had another double-double (18 points, 12 rebounds). Sebastian Telfair had his best game in weeks (10 points, five assists) and Gerald Green had 21 points in 19 minutes off the bench, including a 14-point second quarter. Rivers said that segment was Green's finest work of the season.

But Green also was the guy at the end of the third quarter who was supposed to deny James a 3-point heave, even if it was the length of the court. He didn't. Catching the ball with one second remaining, James let go with a two-handed set shot. The shot banked in, stunning the crowd. And, after originally ruling it a non-basket, the referees reversed the call after seeing the replay.

"I learned my lesson," Green said. He'll undoubtedly have to watch it over and over again on ESPN.

James also had an acrobatic tip-in at the end of the half with his back to the hoop, which followed a needless Celtics turnover in the closing seconds. In Rivers's mind, those are 5 points that never should have happened -- and you don't have to do the math to know what that meant in a 3-point game.

"I told our guys, just think about the little things that we gave up for easy baskets," Rivers said. He didn't even mention the 5-point possession the Cavs had late in the third quarter, with James making two free throws (after a debatable clear path foul on Ryan Gomes) and Damon Jones following with a 3-pointer. Then, after a Green free throw, James hit his long three.

"We kind of just let LeBron catch it and shoot it," Rivers said. "You're supposed to deny that, too."

But much of that seemed like ancient history in the fourth, when Allen, Jefferson, and Green led the comeback from an 89-81 hole. The deficit was cut to a point (95-94 with 4:54 left), ballooned back to 7 (101-94 with 2:58 left) and was still 4 (105-101) following a huge Ilgauskas putback with 42.9 seconds left.

At that point, Green (8 for 13) swooped in for a layup with 35.9 seconds left and the Celtics' defense forced Larry Hughes (mostly MIA with 14 points) to miss badly. During a timeout, Rivers called for Allen to take the ball to the hole. Allen did, was fouled by Anderson Varejao, and, to that point, had hit all four of his free throws. His first one didn't come close.

That set the stage for the final few seconds and, when the horn sounded, the Celtics walked off with their 11th home loss in 15 games. That is as unseemly as it is unacceptable, but from the snippets that came out of this one, it certainly felt a lot better than some of the other 10.

Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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