WHILE THE Sixers sort out their coaching situation (Eddie Jordan was still the coach as of midnight), there was a basketball game that offered a 48-minute respite, a treatise on the unprecedented basketball show offered by LeBron James and a strong rebuttal from what was supposed to be a winning exacta for the Sixers.

Winning, however, has long since become irrelevant at the Wachovia Center. Still, they filled the joint, coming out on a dismal night to see the King, the brightest star in the sports galaxy, at least until Tiger starts hitting golfballs in public. As part of the deal, the 20,433 got to see Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand play like it was always hoped they would play.

Until, of course, it was time to win the game. Then, the roles were played as scripted. The Cavaliers made all the defensive plays down the stretch. The Sixers became, well, the Sixers.

And Cleveland won a highly entertaining game, 100-95.

"I liked how our two best players carried the game for us," Jordan said. "We had our leaders and then we had our followers. That's the way the world is."

If the Sixers could play the Cavs every night or least play as if they are playing against the Cavs, this lost season would not have morphed into a lost March where the first five defeats of the month were by 21, 19, 11, 11 and 15. They have played Cleveland three times and lost by six, seven and now five.

With 9 minutes to play in this game, the Sixers had the ball and an 85-80 lead. Iguodala and Brand had combined for 50 points. The team had committed just five turnovers. It all looked so promising. Then, it didn't.

Turnovers. Airballs. No-hope threes. Missed free throws.

All the things bad teams do at critical moments even on good nights.

The really good teams lock down on defense, make good decisions and find a way. That is the Cavs (51-15).

"They've won a lot of games so they know when to win and how to win," said Brand, who finished with 24 points and nine rebounds.

Iguodala had 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists. He was 11-for-17 inside the arc and 1-for-7 from the arc. Only he knows why keeps insisting on launching all those long shots.

When he was in attack mode, he was flying every bit as high as the King. And that is about as high as high gets.

One hopeful New York fan across from the Cavaliers bench held up a Knicks jersey with James and the number 6 on it. Every time James touched the ball, you really could hear and feel the anticipation.

What would he do? How would he do it? Well, he did not shoot particularly well. He missed five straight free throws. He also scored 23 points, had 10 assists, six rebounds and three timely blocks.

The Sixers (23-42) scored on their first nine possessions. It didn't matter. The Cavs did not have Antawn Jamison (knee) or Shaquille O'Neal (thumb surgery). That didn't matter, either. They had the King. And they also had Delonte West, playing his best ball of the season.

For a quarter, Iguodala, the Sixers' designated star, matched James dunk for dunk and outscored him, 16-12. James, after sitting out the previous two games with a bum ankle, came flying down the baseline for a flying reverse jam that seemed to defy gravity and logic. The crowd booed when they got no replay.

Holding an early mano-a-mano with James, Iguodala nearly trumped the King with an insane flying onehand windmill off a lob, followed quickly by a stiffarm/throwdown that was frightening in its force.

"We tried to encourage him to just be assertive and just sort of sacrifice your personality," Jordan said. "We wanted him to be aggressive, not just be good across the board."

Iguodala played to the setting, the crowd and the opposition.

"You've got to take the challenge - Carmelo, Kobe," he said. "I don't know if it's one particular player. Night in night out, you've got certain guys like that when you've got to bring your game."

Why not every night against every guy?

"That's the athleticism we see in practice and in big games," Brand said. "He can do that all the time. We need that out of everybody."

Brand thought [Iguodala] "might even jump higher than LeBron James."

What Iguodala can't do is what nobody but James can do: pass with the flair of Magic Johnson, finish like Doctor J, get end to end like a young Allen Iverson, shoot coldblooded threes with form Herb Magee would admire and make it all look effortless.

"I fell off rhythm a little bit," James said. "My wind was a little off, but it felt great to get back on the court with the guys."

In three games against the Sixers, this season, James had 91 points, 26 assists and 19 rebounds. His game is powerful and artistic, often on the same play. And nobody playing has a higher basketball IQ. He intentionally threw one pass off a Sixers player's foot to get an extra 8 seconds on the shot clock.

If James was the brightest light, West was very much part of his galaxy. He had averaged 17 points on 51 percent shooting over his previous five games. He had a very cool 17 points last night, including a very serious flying dunk of his own, with Sam Dalembert arriving too late to get on the poster.

After Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday, who was wide open for a tying three following a timeout with 24.1 seconds left, went to the basket and threw the ball away, West made the clinching free throws with 18.6 seconds left.

It looks very much as if West and the Cavs are on a collision course with Orlando and West's former Saint Joseph's backcourt mate Jameer Nelson in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Sixers have a chance to finish their season with dignity. Play like they did last night and they will have some of that. Play like they have on too many other nights and they won't.