The adulation LeBron James receives for carrying the Miami Heat to a 98-79 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals may last less than 48 hours, but it’s absolutely deserved nonetheless.
Facing elimination and another summer of criticism, LeBron turned in a grand performance on Thursday night, scoring 45 points, including 30 in the first half. He also grabbed 15 rebounds to go with five assists while playing close to 45 minutes. The regular season MVP shot 19-for-26 from the field and missed more foul shots (four) than he did field goals in the first two quarters (two).
Wilt Chamberlain is the only other player in NBA history to produce that type of stat-line in the postseason.
“He was absolutely fearless tonight and it was contagious,” Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “The way he approached the last 48 hours, and not only LeBron, but everyone else. It wasn’t end of the world. Nobody likes getting dirt thrown on your face before you’re even dead.”
Spoelstra, of course, was referring to all the criticism heaped on LeBron after the Celtics took Game 5 and a 3-2 series lead on Tuesday night. Eulogies were written about the 2011-12 Miami Heat as Game 6 approached.
“I think what fuels [LeBron] is this moment, and the moment will define you,” Spoelstra continued. “But I think he’s also – we’ve all done a much better job. We’ve been though a lot in the last two years and I think we’ve learned how to compartmentalize and quiet all the noise out, just focusing on the matter at hand. He did a tremendous job of that. I don’t think he felt all the noise on the outside.”
When asked if he used any of the negativity as fuel, LeBron demurred.
“I didn’t use any motivation,” he replied. “I just went to my habits and just went out and played. I wasn’t gonna feel sorry for myself or anything.”
Meanwhile, the Celtics played badly with a chance to eliminate the Heat and advance to their third NBA Finals in the last five years.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett combined to score just 21 points and went 10-for-32 from the field. The Heat led 26-16 after the first quarter and kept the Celtics at arm’s length before blowing things open early in the fourth. The crowd at TD Garden was ready to explode at any moment, but in the end they had more energy and urgency than the home team.
Perhaps LeBron’s offense was the best way to contain the Celtics defensively.
“We clearly didn’t have the right energy,” Doc Rivers said of his Celtics. “You never know why. Obviously, they came and they wanted to have it. Listen, when a guy comes out and throws a barrage on you like that, that takes some energy out of you. And maybe it’s as simple as that. I don’t think so, but you just never know.”
Rivers waived the white flag with several minutes left when he pulled Garnett. A few moments later, Pierce and Rajon Rondo joined him on the bench.
“He’ll bounce back,” Rivers said of Pierce, who went 4-for-18 on the night. “Paul is a big-game player. Game 7's are the biggest you can possibly have. I thought he was ready for the game. He just didn’t have a great game tonight. We don’t look into it much more than that, at least I don’t.”
“He was down. Kevin was down. The whole locker room was down. But you can see their resolve. They’re not just going to pack for Sunday,” Rivers said of packing for the offseason instead of two games in Oklahoma City against the Thunder.
“They’re going to bring suits for Tuesday, and they’re going to bring suits for Thursday. That’s the way we’re going to plan to do it.”
There was a period in the first half in which Rondo looked ready to go toe-to-toe with LeBron. Rondo, who was serenaded with an “MVP” chant late in the second quarter, had 19 points at the break on 7-for-10 shooting. The issue? He committed a number of costly turnovers and wasn’t nearly as aggressive in the third.
Rondo went 1-for-4 with two points after halftime and committed seven turnovers.
As if LeBron’s onslaught and the struggles of Pierce and Garnett weren’t enough, the Celtics got nothing from their bench until garbage time. Marquis Daniels and E’Twaun Moore combined to score Boston’s final 11 points over the last six minutes. Up until that point, the bench had provided just four points.
The Celtics were also ice cold from deep. They went 1-for-14 from three-point range and weren’t exactly hoisting jumpers as Miami’s lead mounted. Pierce and Mickael Pietrus missed a number of open threes generated by good ball movement -- shots simply didn’t go in.
Offensively, the Celtics forced shots as Miami built an early lead they would never relinquish. It may have been that they were trying to give the raucous crowd what they desired, or it may just have been that they found more rim than net.
“I thought some of [the shots] were forced,” Rivers said. “Especially early on I thought we tried to answer their shots. That’s what I meant by our offense. I just didn’t like it. Didn’t like the way we played offensively. And we have to do -- first start with me, I have to get us some better stuff. But we have to trust the pass. We didn’t do that tonight at all.”
The Celtics finished with 14 assists on 32 made field goals. They had 19 assists on 33 makes in their Game 5 win. Boston came into Thursday night averaging 18.4 assists on 33.1 made shots (55.7 assist percentage) this postseason.
I don’t think their lack of assists came as a result of them not “trusting the pass” as Rivers explained. They simply didn’t make enough shots.
Regardless of how we got here, the stage is set for a tremendous Game 7 on Saturday night. The result will be bursting with storylines regardless of who represents the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
Will the Heat make a major offseason change if they don't advance? Will the Celtics play their final game of the ‘Big Four’ Era? Will we see LeBron versus Kevin Durant, or will the title series feature two ends of the league spectrum -- young and marinated against old and acquired?