IT IS THE SAME in every arena in the NBA. The fans flock to see the larger-than-life superstars, players such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, just as they once did to marvel at the magic made by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving and Pete Maravich.

The fact that the 76ers played before their first sellout crowd of the season at the Wachovia Center - attendance was announced at 20,484 - had less to do with the struggling home team, which had lost three games in a row, than with the last scheduled appearance of the regular season by Cleveland's James, who very well might be the finest all-around basketball player on the planet.

For highlight-reel purposes, James turned in a relatively quiet stat line of 27 points, 10 assists and just two rebounds, with only two of his eight made baskets coming on dunks, as the Cavaliers won, 102-92. The Sixer who drew the primary defensive assignment on LBJ, Andre Iguodala, countered with 26 points and four dunks, including a two-handed throwdown over the league's likely Most Valuable Player right before halftime.

But then James' ego apparently is such that he doesn't deem it necessary to seize every game by the throat, to take every meaningful shot, to make himself the constant focus of a very efficient offense. He is as much a facilitator as a finisher. Maybe his most impressive play of the night came in the third quarter when, on a fastbreak, he found Anderson Varejao with a lefthanded, crosscourt bounce pass that the mop-haired Brazilian forward laid in off the glass.

It also was James' ability to penetrate the lane, and to kick the ball out to Cleveland's group of outstanding three-point shooters, that allowed the Cavs to knock down 12 of 23 from beyond the arc. The Sixers, meanwhile, were only 2-for-9 from long range.

With James drawing a crowd whenever he drove the lane and kicking the ball out to the open man, Wally Szczerbiak found himself getting enough uncontested looks that he scored a season-high 18 points, nailing all four of the treys he attempted, and Mo Williams also had 18 points, including three triples.

For Cleveland, now 64-15 and having clinched the top seeding in the Eastern Conference, it basically is a matter of opponents picking their poison.

"Szczerbiak is the one who really hurt us and surprised us," Sixers coach Tony DiLeo said.

When someone suggested that James had not been the whole show this night for the league's winningest team, Sixers guard Willie Green said appearances can be deceiving.

"It all starts with him," Green said. "You draw up your defense to stop him. He's a superstar. The rest of the team just draws off his energy."

Added Iguodala, who scored eight of his points in the final 2 1/2 minutes, when the outcome had been decided: "[James] does a good job of changing his pace. He has a couple of tricks up his sleeve."

Some of those tricks were pulled out of James' sleeve in the fourth quarter after the gritty Sixers, who fell to 40-39 with their fourth consecutive defeat, made the last of several runs to get close enough to believe they just might be able to pull off the upset.

When Lou Williams drained a straight-on 19-footer with 9 minutes, 26 seconds to play, the Sixers found themselves down by just 76-74. But Szczerbiak swished another three-pointer and veteran Joe Smith followed with a lefty floater from the baseline to kick-start a 14-6 run that refurbished the Cleveland advantage to 10 points. The Sixers got no closer than seven the rest of the way.

"We shot the ball really well tonight," James said of a victory that wasn't as easy as some might have expected. "Wally gave us a big lift off the bench going 4-for-4 from behind the three-point line. When we can make shots from the outside like that, it helps us in the interior and allows me to get into the paint. Guys just feel confident right now taking those shots."

For DiLeo, whose playoff hopes are tied to the quick recovery of power forward Thaddeus Young, whose sprained right ankle is healing on schedule, but not quick enough to brake the Sixers' slide, this was another example of close but no cigar. But, considering that the Cavaliers might be the class of the NBA, he wasn't prepared to write it off as a total loss.

"I thought we did some good things," DiLeo said. "We just didn't do enough good things to win the game."

The Sixers need one victory in their final three games to clinch a .500 season, two to ensure a winning season. Their best chance could be a road game tomorrow against the Toronto Raptors (30-49) at the Air Canada Centre; that is followed by a home game against the defending champion Boston Celtics (60-19) and a road finale against the Cavaliers.

But DiLeo said there is no better preparation for the playoffs than to go to the mat with heavyweights like the Cavs and Celtics to close out the regular season.

"We approach these games as playoff games," DiLeo said. "And we still have a chance to finish it off with some momentum."

Aside from Iguodala, the primary sources of offense for the Sixers were guards Andre Miller and Lou Williams, each of whom finished with 17 points. *