BOSTON -- A city-silencing, game-tying three with two minutes left. A hesitating, long-striding, left-handed leaning drive in the final minute of regulation. A fallaway rainbow buzzer-beater to open the overtime. A catch from Dwyane Wade that he drove into the lane to create a layup for Chris Bosh, Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. A backbreaking charge drawn near the three-point line against Paul Pierce.
These are the talents (to quote himself) that LeBron James was always known to possess. These are the plays he made to redefine himself and his new franchise down the stretch of the tightest game, in the most hostile building, against the opponent he, Wade and Bosh could never beat. Miami is returning home with a 3-1 series lead, thanks to a 98-90 overtime win in Game 4 Monday that could begin to transform 10 unhappy months into the happiest year of James's young life.
"I looked at it as one of the biggest games of my career," said James. "Me and D-Wade had a lot of conversation after Game 3 all the way to the tip-off today about how important this game is. I heard a stat that D-Wade had lost 11 straight in this building. I haven't had much success in this building. So we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try to do whatever it took to help our team win this ballgame."
They may not win the championship this year, and they have yet to win this series -- "It will be the toughest thing we've had to do up to this point," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra of closing out the Celtics in Game 5 Wednesday at Miami -- but this win was a breakthrough of its own. As James discussed his 35-point, 14-rebound performance over 50 excruciating minutes, he was unable or unwilling to suppress a smile, perhaps because he had never felt so liberated.
For years everything came easily: He was prodigiously ahead of schedule and it was all about the upside. Over the last two years James was upset by the Magic and these Celtics, and then he appeared to upset just about everyone by the manner of his farewell to Cleveland. The resulting spotlight in Miami has been harsh and unforgiving. After opening this second round with a pair of wins at home, he came to Boston and was "passive," by his own admission, while going 6-of-16 for 15 points in a Game 3 loss hijacked by Rajon Rondo.
"Me and LeBron talked about this last night at dinner -- this is the biggest game for us since 2006-07, when he was playing against Detroit and I played in the Finals," said Wade. "We had to approach it that way."
The Celtics overcame their myriad injuries -- Rondo's dislocated left elbow was heavily bandaged beneath a white padded sleeve -- to run out to an early 11-point advantage. But James responded with 20 points to steer the Heat to within 53-50 at the half. When Boston inched ahead by eight late in the third, James finished the quarter by setting up one layup for Joel Anthony and then another for himself. The Celtics would never lead by more than a couple of possessions again.
This kind of neck-tightening game had been Miami's grave weakness, based on many near misses suffered against the best opponents for most of this season. But those troubles created this ensuing joy.
"We've done a good job all year of learning from our mistakes," said Wade, who contributed 28 points and four assists against an opponent that had tortured him throughout the regular season. "We said this in November when we started off 9-8: If we had started off 15-2, 16-1, 17-0, that would have been the worst thing that could have happened to this team. We hit adversity very fast and we had to really come together as a unit. We had to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure it out together."
The Celtics will fly back to Miami believing their own failures created the opportunities for the Heat to take this game. "We had so many opportunities -- the fast breaks, the missed layups, the open shots," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. But there were many explanations. The injury to Rondo (10 points, five assists and three turnovers) ultimately forced Rivers to bench his leader for almost two minutes in overtime as the Heat pulled away. "They clearly were trapping off him and trapping him," said Rivers of Rondo. "He struggled getting the ball to the guys in their right spot."
Other deficiencies had more to do with the Celtics' age, their unproductive frontcourt and -- above all -- the Heat's athletic and insist pursuit of team defense. Kevin Garnett went 1-of-10 just two nights after promising to be aggressive throughout the remainder of the series -- but didn't Miami's interior defense have something to do with that? The Celtics were woeful on the boards, as James, Bosh (12) and Wade (nine) outrebounded the entire Boston roster 35-28 -- but wasn't that an emphatic sign of one team's hunger and the other's fatigue?
In the end it was LeBron's game to win or lose, and the misery of the last year helped bring out the best in him. He was absolutely unwilling to lose again. When Ray Allen hit a three to push the Celtics out to an 84-81 lead with 2:28 left, James answered with a dramatic three of his own against Pierce. "That play right there was a backbreaker," said Allen. "If I have to think about it, which I probably will all night, I probably would have been more vocal to get up on him, make him drive, because everyone's behind you in help position. Don't let him shoot it. But Paul was in his face, he made a tough shot. We didn't expect it."
Pierce, easily the best Celtic on the floor with 27 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, answered James's heavily-paused layup with a drive of his own to make it 86-86 with 41.4 seconds left. This was turning into a recreation of their famous Game 7 showdown, in this very same round of the playoffs three years ago, on the Celtics' way to their championship. So were revived those memories when Allen stripped away James's dribble in the frontcourt to give the Celtics a last shot to win at the buzzer.
Earlier this season, the Heat would not have recovered from James's mistake. "We stick together," said Wade. "We may get on each other, but at the end of the day we walk out of the huddle as a unit together. When the turnover happened, I talked to 'Bron and told him what I thought he should have did, and said `Let's get this stop and let's go into overtime and win this game."'
Which is what they did, as Garnett failed to set a screen for Pierce and left him to attempt a long fallaway jumper -- contested by James -- that spooned out. "The only way to redeem myself was to get a stop one-on-one against Paul," said James.
In overtime, Wade hit a big three, and Bosh -- overcoming a poor first half to outplay Garnett with 20 points and 12 rebounds -- tipped in a James jumper as Miami's Big Three combined for 83 points, and no one else on the roster scored more than four. "We're the guys," said Wade. "We are the ones who get all the attention, get all the praise, and we've got to take the downfall as well. This team will go as far as us three take us."
They're on the verge of reaching the conference finals at the expense of a rival that had spent the last several seasons (this one included) illuminating the Heat's weaknesses. Now Miami's stars approach Game 5 from the ultimate position of strength, and no one can feel stronger than James. No player in the world has been gifted with more talent, but there was nothing natural or easy in this victory. This was the result of months of humbling work.