MIAMI -- Where he stood showed how much everything had changed. The basket was 25 feet away, a distance that used to be his weakness. His new teammates were coming out to congratulate him. His new arena and the only fans who love him were louder than they'd been last summer.
The first big achievement LeBron James had been seeking 10 months ago was fulfilled by that final three-pointer. Three dribbles and up with it. A 93-87 lead with 40.4 seconds remaining. He had made successive three-pointers in the final 2:10 to push Miami further and further ahead, he would score his team's final 10 points in a 97-87 win on Wednesday in Game 5 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals at the expense of the Celtics, and that was only the half of it.
"It means everything,'' said James of his partnership with Dwyane Wade. "It is part of the reason I came here, not only because of his talent, but because of the friendship we had. A lot of people doubted; we knew ... we're two unselfish guys. We knew for the better of the team that we were going to make it work. It was just going to take time.''
Five potential opponents wait for Miami over the two remaining rounds, and good luck to them on nights like this when James strikes for 33 points on 20 shots and Wade goes for 34 on 19. This result had been building all season and throughout this series. Could each play his best in concert with the other? Here was their answer.
"You are not beating a team like the Boston Celtics with one guy as the focal point of the offense,'' said Wade. "At the end of the season last year, I knew that. That is why I said next year I am not going to put myself in this position. I am going to go out and recruit help.''
This game was the allegory of the franchise itself. Wade was here first, and in this game he scored in the earlygoing as if James wasn't beside him. LeBron was going 0-for-4 with three turnovers while Boston was pacing -- but not running -- out to a 10-point lead early in the second quarter. Wade was attacking the basket and pouring down fallaway jumpers at a combined 9-for-12 rate in the first half as if no "Decision'' had ever been made.
He had kept the Heat within 49-47 of the Celtics at halftime. "LeBron looked at me and said, 'I got your back,''' said Wade. "And he had my back in a big way.''
The Celtics were still deciding how to control Wade when James attacked alongside him. How often after their signing had we heard doomsday visions of Wade on one side of the floor and James on the other? The Heat had never explored that future so explosively as they did Wednesday, as James contributed 23 points in the second half. "For most of this series, Wade was tough on the glass, just trying to locate him when we were paying so much attention to LeBron,'' said Ray Allen, who led the Celtics with 18 points while making five of 10 three-pointers. "The one thing that we didn't do was limiting fouls and keeping them out of the paint. They lived in our paint.''
Let's say this about the stubborn Celtics. They contended with Wade, James and Chris Bosh (14 points and 11 rebounds) with a fourth-quarter lineup that included Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green and Delonte West, who altogether had appeared in fewer than 82 regular-season games for Boston. Rajon Rondo (six points and three assists in 30 minutes), who was already dealing with the dislocated left elbow he suffered in Game 3, was sidelined in the fourth by a bad back. Kevin Garnett, who had inspired Boston's strong start with 12 first-quarter points, would score only three over the final three periods. Paul Pierce, limited by foul trouble among the many difficulties created by James, managed 12 points on 12 shots.
Had Rondo been healthy, would the Celtics be looking forward to a Game 6 at home? It is neither an excuse the Celtics were offering nor one that is fair to the Heat, who come together in a short time with teammates who struggled to complement one another. The Celtics didn't collapse at the sight of them, or the sight of their own injury report. Their stubbornness gave meaning to Miami's victory.
Afterward James and Wade spoke of how the Celtics had created the model for bringing together three stars and winning a championship immediately. Miami's goal was to improve on that model. James, Wade and Bosh haven't done so yet, but the first step was to beat Boston.
"I knew deep down in my heart I couldn't, even as much as I loved my teammates back in Cleveland, I couldn't do it by myself against that team,'' said James of the Celtics. "I knew that was a team that I wanted to get over the hump against. I just look at those guys and I see multiple threats.''
"There is so much respect between both teams,'' said Wade. "The Boston Celtics laid the blueprint for us, to show us how to do it. Hopefully we can continue to carry on the blueprint that they laid.''
The Celtics haven't given up, especially now that coach Doc Rivers said after this game that he intends to return to the Celtics next year along with Garnett, Allen, Pierce and Rondo. But James had a more promising future in mind as he knelt on the court at the end of this game, thinking about all of the problems he had created on his way to fulfilling this first of many goals. "I'd be here for two hours if I told you everything that went through my head,'' he said. He's not done yet.