The Heat showed up and so did the Celtics’ fans. But the Celtics themselves went missing Thursday night at TD Garden.
LeBron James scored 45 points, 30 in the first half, as Miami took a 98-79 victory over the Celtics, setting up a deciding Eastern Conference finals Game 7 in Miami Saturday.
The Celtics had hoped to close out the series at home, but they performed more like a fatigued group of visitors. The Celtics had the best seats in the house, with an up-close look at James’s full arsenal.
James shot 12 for 14 in the opening half and finished 19 for 26 from the field, departing with the Heat leading by 22 points as spectators improvised a “Let’s Go Celtics’’ chant over the final three minutes.
“Well, it was a matter of too much LeBron,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He was absolutely sensational - made every shot, set the tone for their whole team.’’
Miami built double-digit leads in the opening quarter as James scored 14 points - equal to Boston’s total. The Celtics pulled within 8 late in the half, but James and Dwyane Wade went on a 5-0 run in the final minute for a 55-42 halftime lead. The Celtics’ went to their small lineup, rallying within 10 late in the third quarter. But the Celtics would not get any closer, after a Mickael Pietrus follow cut the deficit to 69-59 with 2:51 to go in the quarter.
“I thought they played with more force for most of the game,’’ Rivers said. “Every chance we had to make a run - we did miss a lot of open shots. Having said that, I really thought it was fool’s gold. I didn’t think it was the shots we wanted, even though they were open. Give them credit - that was part of their defense. But I thought it was a lot of us. I thought early on, offensively, we didn’t play like us. Each guy wanted to win the game for us, which is a good trait, but the bad trait is there was no ball movement. The ball just stuck for most of the game.
“Listen, it’s one loss against a great player against our defense. And I think our guys should take that very personal.’’
Rajon Rondo sparked the Celtics with 21 points and 10 assists but also had 7 turnovers. No other Celtic starter was able to get into the offensive flow. Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett totaled 12 points, Ray Allen had 10 points, and Paul Pierce went 4 for 18 from the floor and totaled 9 points.
The Celtics were 1 for 14 on 3-pointers, the one make the result of impressive ball movement as Keyon Dooling found a wide-open Allen. That cut the deficit to 30-23 with 9:41 left in the opening half.
But Miami took a timeout and upped the lead to 13 a little more than a minute later.
The Celtics’ small lineup rallied within 69-59 late in the third quarter, then Garnett reentered for the final two minutes of the quarter. But Garnett did not make an impact on this contest, the Heat soon increasing its advantage to 25 points in the final quarter.
Miami went on a 7-2 run in the opening 1:42 of the final quarter, Shane Battier’s 3-pointer making it 81-63. The Celtics would convert only one field goal - a Pierce jumper - in the opening 5:40 of the fourth quarter, before sending in the reserves.
“We clearly didn’t have the right energy,’’ Rivers said. “You never know why. Obviously, they came and they wanted to have it. Listen, a guy comes down and throws a barrage at you like that, that takes some energy out of you, you know? Maybe it’s as simple as that, but I don’t think so. But you just never know.
“We left a huge opportunity on the floor, you know? But that’s what playoffs are about. Clearly, you’re at home, you want to win, you always want to win. Did you hear our crowd last three minutes of the game? What other crowd in the NBA does that? Fans were unbelievable. They did their part, we just didn’t do ours.
“Honestly, that was a great opportunity, but now we have another opportunity, we get to play another game - Game 7 - I would say most of the people in this room would say, ‘Wow, they’re going to get to Game 7.’ We’ll take it, that’s the way we have to view it. We won one game on theirs, they won one here, now we get to play for all the marbles.
“This team has not done it the easy way this year, maybe this is justified for us, go in there and do it.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.