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‘Chosen One’ now has a choice to make

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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LeBron James had an odd method of displaying devastation, that’s if he was devastated. He sat with a blue Cavaliers T-shirt, knees wrapped in ice and feet soaking in an ice tub. He responded to the tidal wave of criticism with a triple-double. He played hard. He scared the Celtics with consecutive 3-pointers to trim the deficit to 4 points. He had nothing to be ashamed of in last night’s 94-85 loss in Game 6 to the Celtics.

Nonetheless, James should carry the brunt of the blame for the Cavaliers’ collapse against the Celtics. Cleveland is his city. The Cavaliers are his team. Great players don’t deflect blame or push aside the responsibility. It was up to James to lead the Cavaliers to the Finals.

General manager Danny Ferry surrounded him with some faulty parts, but that hardly mattered, because that lineup was good enough for 61 regular-season wins. What James didn’t anticipate was that those teammates, bursting with confidence in the regular season, would hide behind his imposing shadow and crumble with fear once the competition increased.

“We didn’t play good enough, we just didn’t,’’ said James’s longtime teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas. “We didn’t play good against Chicago. We just beat them because we were a better team. We didn’t play good this [postseason]. Overall, we really did not play well as a team, and eventually they were going to make you pay.’’

The question is whether the word pay, as in “pay me’’ was on James’s mind the past two weeks more than winning a title. His possible free agency is the biggest NBA topic since the comeback(s) of Michael Jordan, and LeBron realizes he can change the course of two teams with his decision.

Beginning July 1, James will likely be the most sought-after free agent perhaps in sports history. The Knicks, Nets, Clippers, Bulls, and Heat have enough money to offer him a five-year, maximum contract. The Cavaliers can offer him an additional year and $30 million more.

“I am going to approach this summer with the right mind-set, my team [of agents and friends] will approach it the right way,’’ he said. “I haven’t really thought about it just now. Trying to figure out what went wrong in this series. We’ll see what happens.

“I didn’t play this season wondering about what I was going to do in the offseason. I approached every game, every practice, every day like it was my last.’’

He relishes that control and power, but no doubt some of the luster was lost after this series. He played a flawed game last night, still unable to successfully drive to the basket. He didn’t shoot enough, not nearly enough. Champions carry their teams in the fourth quarter. James took five — five! — shots in perhaps his final quarter as a Cavalier.

He never took command of the series, and that’s what elite players do. James has some growing to do before he joins the Jordans, Ervings, or even Bryants. It’s unfair to judge James on number of titles, but superstars, franchise players, aren’t judged fairly.

James has never been judged fairly, whether positively or negatively. We tabbed him the “Chosen One’’ and “King James’’ when he wasn’t old enough to rent a car. And now that he’s considered the game’s premier player, we judge him on team success. His team failed, and James is indeed the straw that stirred the Cavaliers’ drink. So he accepts the blame.

He appeared in a daze during last night’s postgame press conference. His team of agents, buddies, and confidants stood there and watched LeBron express his love for Cleveland, but also his desire to make a calculated decision about his future.

“I love the city of Cleveland, of course,’’ he said. “The fans . . . it’s another disappointing season to say the least, but at the same time we’ve had a great time together.’’

The excitement generated by James’s free agency was dampened a bit with his playoff performance. Over the last seven years, five franchises have won championships, and not one had James on its roster. So signing him will add a superstar and boost jersey sales, but in no way does it guarantee a championship.

Winning a title this season would have allowed James to leave Cleveland with little guilt. Now his departure will be viewed as a betrayal, like Manny Ramirez, who left the Indians for a $160 million contract with the Red Sox. He left Cleveland with two World Series losses, which in Northeast Ohio is viewed as pure agony.

There has to be a high level of sympathy for Cleveland, which put all its hopes behind James to bring home a long-awaited sports championship. And the King fell short, not by leaving everything, including his sweaty jersey, on the floor, but leaving fans wondering whether there was more he could have given. And that sentiment is what separates him from the game’s all-time greats.

“First of all, I want to win,’’ he said. “And I mean, that’s my only thing, that’s my only concern. I’ve always prided myself on becoming a better basketball [player] individually and then taking it onto the court. I mean, it’s all about winning for me and I think the Cavs are committed to do that, but at the same time I’ll give myself options at this point.’’

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

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