BOSTON – LeBron James finally gave a definitive answer about his future.
"I'm going to continue to get better throughout the offseason like I always do and I'll come back a better player next season," he said.
James wasn't ready to speculate about that Thursday night, not when he was still in so much pain.
Pain from a strained right elbow that kept him from dominating as he so often does.
Pain from another early exit that means he's still not a champion — and maybe never will be in Cleveland.
"Kind of still trying to figure out what went wrong in this series or things that we did right," James said. "We'll see what happens."
All of Cleveland is waiting.
Helped by James' costly turnover early in the fourth quarter, the Boston Celtics pulled away to beat the Cavaliers 94-85, ending the Eastern Conference semifinal series and starting Cleveland's summer of anxiety.
James had his sixth postseason triple-double, finishing with 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists. He did all he could for the Cavaliers.
Perhaps that's the last he'll ever do for them.
James said a friend told him that you have to go through a lot of nightmares before you accomplish your dreams. The kid from Akron will have to determine if those dreams can ever come in Cavs colors.
"I want to win. That's my only thing, my only concern," James said. "It's all about winning for me and I think the Cavs are committed to doing that, but at the same time I've given myself options to this point."
Battling a sore elbow and a former champion that believes it has another title in it, James struggled for most of the last three games. Still, he looked ready to bring the Cavs back in this one, hitting consecutive 3-pointers to cut Boston's lead to four at 78-74 with 9:35 left.
He was dribbling with little pressure on the Cavs' next possession when he suddenly lost the ball. Rajon Rondo grabbed the loose ball and turned it into a layup, igniting a game-breaking 10-0 run that made it 88-74.
All that was left from there were a few more taunts about James' future — specifically, that it might not be in Cleveland.
The Cavaliers knew they were on the clock from the moment James signed his last contract in July 2006. Rather than go for the maximum length of six years, he chose the option to become a free agent this summer.
Boston's Kevin Garnett, who spent many losing years in Minnesota without asking out before finally getting traded to Boston in 2007, seemed to think leaving home might be best for James.
"Loyalty is something that hurts you at times because you can't get youth back," Garnett said, adding that if he'd known how things would be when he got out to Boston, "I'd have done it a little sooner."
Cleveland worked feverishly to build a team that would be too good for James to consider walking away from, but all it's managed was a great regular season, one that's never really come all that close to a title.
The Cavs were easily swept aside in the 2007 NBA finals, lost in the second round twice in the last three years to Boston, and were upset by Orlando in last year's conference finals.
The Cavs can still offer him the comforts of home and around $30 million more than any team, but several others can make enticing pitches come July 1:
_The Knicks can afford James and another superstar, and the chance to make basketball matter again at Madison Square Garden.
_The Heat can pair him with Dwyane Wade with winter weather he could only dream of in Ohio.
_The Bulls can fit him between a young core of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and allow him to pick up winning titles where Michael Jordan left off.
James has never said he wanted to leave the Cavs, but there's long been speculation that he'd be willing to bolt for a larger market. Fans certainly seized on that idea Thursday, chanting "New York Knicks! New York Knicks!" when the two-time MVP shot free throws.
The Cavs thought they'd have more time before they had to face the thought of a future without James. They had the NBA's best record and expected to be playing into June, but found their supporting cast wasn't good enough on nights when James was human.
After scoring 38 points in Game 3, he managed only 37 over the next two games, perhaps bothered by the elbow. He shot down Internet speculation of a torn ligament before the game, but clearly wasn't himself.
As for the severity of the injury, James would only say: "I've got a lot of time to think about it now."
He went more than 19 minutes of game time without a basket from early in the second quarter until late in the third. Balls were stripped from his powerful hands, and those normally pinpoint passes were thrown behind teammates or at their feet.
Still, he somehow ended up with a triple-double. Only 25, he will surely win a title someday.
Nobody knows yet where it will be.
"It's the only thing I can think about right now, this season being over," James said. "You have high expectations going into the postseason and you never can predict the future, but at the same time you hope for things much brighter than what's going on right now."