MIAMI -- One door closes, another opens. Three stars left the stage, and their three replacements, their three emulators, seized the place in the NBA Finals that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen wanted so desperately but could not have again. It was not so much an orderly succession of power as it was a theft of identity.
An NBA Finals of LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant seemed inevitable beneath the magnificent 45 points from James that had buried the Celtics in Game 6 at Boston. That game Thursday was supposed to have been Boston's best chance to advance to the title round for the third time in five years. But age had its silver lining: It forced the Celtics to save their very best efforts for a night like Saturday, when there are no other options but to fight to the end, and so this 101-88 loss in Game 7 would underscore their integrity on their way out the door. It was 73-73 entering the fourth quarter, and that's when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did everything that the Celtics trio wanted to do.
The narrative of the Heat's return to the Finals as a much better team than a year ago is a story of high standards and imitation. They would spend the fourth quarter beating Boston senseless with the highest form of flattery. They were themselves, in fact, a creation of the Celtics' Big Three. Two summers ago James, Wade and Bosh accepted less money in hope of becoming what Garnett, Pierce and Allen had become. They wanted to not only overtake the Celtics but to recreate the formula that had succeeded so inspirationally in Boston, and to beat them at their own game.
For three quarters of this Game 7 the Celtics' Big Three looked young, and from their play the Heat's Big Three recognized a vision for themselves. They would spend the remaining 12 minutes turning that vision into a merciless reality. After an Allen three put Boston on top 82-81 with 8:49 remaining, the Heat would limit Boston to two field goals in its next 11 attempts. At the other end of the court James (11 points in the final period), Wade (nine) and Bosh (eight) were scoring every point for Miami in the fourth quarter. They were going 10 for 17 from the field and 5 for 6 from the line. They were generating every assist, every steal, and all but three of their team's rebounds.
"What we're saying to each other, it's time. It's time," said James, who would finish with a typical 31 points and 12 rebounds. "Let's play our fourth quarter defense, what we're capable of doing."
Their extended 18-4 run of the fourth quarter began with James rebounding an errant three by Allen and driving it all the way to the basket at the other end; pausing as he approached the keytop, he burst past Brandon Bass to finish the kind of dunk that used to define Michael Jordan. A steal of Pierce was made by Wade. A pass from James to Bosh resulted in a corner three. And then, as James stood hunched beyond the keytop, he waved one teammate and then another from the left side of the floor to the right so that he could drive into that vacated space to complete a difficult runner that looked easy coming from him.
With three seconds left on the shot clock, James poured down a three from at least five feet behind the arc. That put Miami out front 91-84 with 5:44 remaining. "That was a back breaker for us," said Rivers of James' three. "He in particular played a very smart, aggressive game. He let the game come to him, and then down the stretch he took the game over. That's what great players do."
That's how he has learned to play over the last year. It has been a hard 12 months but it has not gone to waste. On the contrary, it has channeled James to become the kind of champion of big games that his rival Pierce had become for the Celtics. Four years ago Pierce was dueling with him to win a Game 7 in Boston on the way to pushing the Celtics to their title. What Pierce did then was what James was doing now.
"Boston now for two years has probably been the single team that has pushed us and bended us where we've had to improve," said Spoelstra. "And we've had defining moments both years, usually during the regular season, after very tough losses where they have forced us to redefine ourselves and recommit."
The Celtics provided the look in the mirror that forced the Heat to see themselves as they really were. This rivalry has brought out the best in James, enabling him to win in Boston as a leader of the highest standards Thursday, and enabling his team to survive another triple-double from Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (22 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds to lead his team in all three categories) on this winner-take-all evening.
Could Wade learn to play alongside James? He advanced his understanding in this series, as he forced fewer and fewer shots while taking on more and more patience against the trapping defenses of the Celtics.
"When a team is double-teaming you every time you have the ball, whether in the post or pick-and-roll, it's going to be hard to get going in the beginning of the game," said Wade, who would finish with 23 points (on 17 shots) and six assists. "You have to let things open up, let them eventually get tired. And maybe that blitz ain't the same no more. Maybe that coverage ain't the same.
"I was just being patient as much as possible. No matter what everyone on the outside said about me, I'm a winner. I'm a team player. And that's what it was all about."
Could Bosh prove to be the Big Three peer and fourth-quarter contributor that he knew he could be? He had recovered from an abdominal strain within three weeks to contribute in the last three games. He returned as a go-to scorer who went 4-of-4 in the fourth, and he emerged as a three-point threat (3-of-4 from the arc, including two in the fourth) who promises over the next two weeks to spread the floor for James and Wade. "We needed Bosh's guy to help slow down LeBron," said Rivers of his weakened fourth-quarter defense.
Imagine Bosh continuing to come off the bench in the NBA Finals. "It may be something great for us," said James.
The Celtics were trailing 99-86 when Rivers called one last timeout with 1:23 for his tired Big Three. "We had nothing left," he said. While their backs were turned away, the security guards were surrounding the court with a yellow rope to prepare for the presentation of the conference championship trophy. The Celtics returned to the floor to see the beginnings of the celebration, but it was too late for them to doing anything about it. It was too late in this game and too late in their careers.
In the final minute Rivers sent four players from his bench to the scorer's table. With 28.3 seconds remaining referee Joey Crawford waved them in for the Big Three and Rondo. Garnett and Allen are free agents-to-be, and each hugged Rivers. "He said, `I love you,"' said Rivers of Garnett. "And he said, `We could not have gotten any more out of this group."'
"Thank you," said Rivers, and he walked away, arms folded tight across his chest, biting on his lips. He was trying to not cry.
Afterward there was a lot of talk about who they were and what they meant and how many titles they might have won had Garnett's knee never been injured in 2009, and there was speculation about whether Garnett will retire (Rivers doubts it) and where Allen may sign to play next season. All of this went on in the rearview mirror, reducing in size as attentions turned to the upcoming NBA Finals. Can the Big Three win the championship? The location of the team and the identities of the players had changed, but the ambition was the same here as it had been in Boston. This was the gift that Garnett, Pierce and Allen had lost, the gift that James, Wade and Bosh had taken from them. The gift of the ages.