So, here we go. After 11 days, six games, and thousands of erroneous predictions and definitive statements (the Celtics are too old, the Heat always choke), we are down to one game for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
Led by LeBron James’s 45 points, the ever-maligned, hateable Miami Heat stood tall and decimated the gritty Celtics Thursday night, thrashing Boston’s proud Green Team, 98-79, on the parquet floor of TD Garden. Perhaps the most ridiculed great player in the history of sports, James made 19 of 26 floor shots and added 15 rebounds. It was a performance worthy of Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan.
Saturday night in Miami the Celtics and Heat will play Game 7 and the winner will ride a Conestoga wagon into Oklahoma City for Game 1 of the Finals Tuesday night.
Historically, Game 7 belongs to the Celtics. They are to Game 7 what Johnny Carson was to late-night television, what Dick Clark was to New Year’s Eve.
It’s always fun to hop into the way-back machine and summon the memories and ghosts of Messrs. Russell, Cousy, Havlicek, and Bird, but it’s impossible to predict what might happen Saturday night. Six games have taught us that we know nothing about these two teams. At the beginning of this series it looked as though the old guard of Boston had no chance against the skill and athleticism of James and his partner, Dwyane Wade. The Heat ruled in Game 1 and appeared to break the Celtics’ spirit winning Game 2 in overtime.
Then the series came to Boston, and the Celtics dominated the next three games, including Tuesday night in Miami. The Heat were humiliated. From pillar to post, from coast to coast, mocking the Heat was the national pastime.
We all showed up at the Garden Thursday night anticipating another Heat stroke and the Celtics winning at home to get to the Finals for the 22d time in franchise history. I thought it would make sense if Heat boss Pat Riley fired overwhelmed coach Erik Spoelstra and took over his team while there was still time to save the season.
Wrong. It didn’t matter who coached the Heat Thursday night. James was on a mission to assert his greatness.
Mission accomplished. There were moments when this game made you think of what it must have been like the night Wilt went for 100 points in Hershey, Pa., 50 years ago.
James dominated from the jump. He made 6 of 7 shots in the first quarter, which ended with the Heat leading, 26-16. The Celtics had one assist and five turnovers in the first 12 minutes.
It didn’t get any better for Boston in the second. LeBron had 30 at intermission and the Heat led, 55-42.
“I wanted to be there for my teammates from the opening tip,’’ James said.
The Celtics never got close. And we all know that getting close is the key to beating the Heat. Miami is a classic front-runner bully. Nobody looks better than a Heat team with a big lead. The way to beat the Heat is to get them in a close game and wait for the self-immolation. The Celtics were not able to do this Thursday night. James would not allow it.
LBJ had 41 after three, and the Heat led, 74-61.
These were not dunks and/or breakaways. James scored from every spot on the floor.
“I wasn’t paying too much attention [to what the Celtics were doing],’’ said James. “I was focused on what I had to do. I was in such a zone - doing what I had to do.’’
“It was a good response,’’ said Spoelstra. “He was absolutely fearless tonight and it was contagious. Nobody likes getting thrown dirt on your face, but he showed great resolve and everybody followed from there. This is a very stubborn, tough-minded group. We’ve been through a lot . . . We thought we should have won the last two games. You have to stay the course. Go back to our corner and get geared up for the next game.’’
James didn’t come off the floor until the clock showed 3:11 with the Heat leading, 92-70, in the fourth.
“Looking ahead, I will try to continue to play at a high level,’’ James said. “I won’t regret Game 7.’’
The Celtics could do nothing to stop him. Rajon Rondo had a nice game with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but captain Paul Pierce made only 4 of 18 shots and looked old and exhausted trying to guard the indomitable James.
“It was a matter of too much LeBron,’’ admitted Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “He made every shot and set the tone. We, on the other hand, never really established what we wanted to do. We didn’t play like us. Listen, it’s one loss, against a great player. I think our guys should take that very personally. We’re comfortable on the road, but we’re going to have to play a hell of a game.’’
Only one Celtics team has recovered from an 0-2 series deficit; the 1969 fourth-place Celtics. Those old C’s were led by Russell and Sam Jones, both ready to retire. They staggered through the regular season, then came back to beat the Chamberlain-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor Lakers. They beat LA and Father Time, winning Game 7 on the road in the Forum.
It could happen again. But the Celtics are going to have to do something about LeBron.