BOSTON -- This was LeBron James's rendition of what Michael Jordan did next door 26 years ago, in a building that no longer exists. On his Sunday afternoon, Michael had 63 points against Larry Bird's Celtics and was glorified for losing in two overtimes. There are many differences between them and on Thursday this was the most important one: Jordan was on his way up when he revealed his true self in the old Garden, but when LeBron broke through in the newer building it was to prevent himself from tumbling off the cliff.
James left Cleveland two years ago because he wanted more help from superior teammates, and on his way out of town he burned his connections to fans everywhere. The outgoing star who needed friends would spend the next two years in a kind of tortuous isolation, and it was all by himself Thursday that he would win Game 6 to even these Eastern finals at 3-3. When he had earned his first rest with 3:11 remaining in Miami's 98-79 victory, his 45 points represented almost half of Miami's output. Among his teammates, only Dwyane Wade (17 points on 17 shots) would score in double-figures, and altogether the non-LeBrons of Miami would shoot 18 for 50 from the field. James's 15 rebounds were more than twice as many as any Celtic, and at both ends of the floor he destroyed Paul Pierce.
"He was locked in like I've never seen him before," said Wade. "The shots he was making were unbelievable. He really put on an MVP performance, not just scoring the ball -- but rebounding the ball, defensively. We just gave him the ball and got out of the way."
That last line was essentially what Kevin Garnett (a futile 12 points on 14 shots) had said of Pierce after he scored 41 to outduel James in a Game 7 here in the second round of 2008, when the Celtics were on their way to the championship and James's promise appeared to be without limit. The next four years would naturally diminish Pierce, now 34. In the meantime, the last two years away from home have strengthened James.
A 2-0 lead in this series had given way to three straight Celtic wins, including one in Miami, and everyone could see where this was headed. Wade was being bottled up, Chris Bosh was just now returning from a three-week injury to play short minutes in Game 5, and coach Erik Spoelstra was facing accusations that he was being out-coached by Boston's Doc Rivers. But a loss in Game 6 was ultimately going to be LeBron's fault. He brought the attention on himself by going on TV two years ago. He asked for this. Maybe, in hindsight, he could not have done what he did in this game without the suffering that led up to it.
"I didn't use any motivation," said James softly in his Clark Kent hornrimmed glasses. "I just went to my habits. I went to what I built over the course of the season, over the course of the years, and just went out and played. I wasn't going to feel sorry for myself or anything ... I didn't need no extra motivation tonight."
The motivation has been building from months and years of booings and catcalls and ridicule. He was 27, arguably the most gifted player the game had ever seen, and he was still seeking the first of the seven or more championships he had promised ludicrously on his first day in a Miami uniform. By the time this game began, the grandstanding and posturing had been worn away, like baby fat burned off by work and worry.
He was out on the floor for the opening tip long before any of his teammates, as if he couldn't wait to get to it, as if he didn't mind the glare of scrutiny. It was as if nothing could hurt him anymore. He walked around the Celtics' parquet by himself, head down, before settling atop the leprechaun in the bull's-eye of center court. Two cameras were held at their operators' hips and aimed up at him like flamethrowers. Hands on hips, slouching, he turned to face Garnett come skipping toward him. James would go 19 for 26 from the field (2 of 4 threes) and still find time to generate a team-leading five of Miami's 15 assists.
James announced his intentions loudly and yet impassively in the third minute as he came up from behind everyone to dunk as hard as he could. If this game leads to a championship, then that dunk and the performance it trumpeted will be remembered for as long as he is worth remembering. It was the beginning of a showing that was all work and grimace. There was no head nodding or acting out for the cameras, because no longer could he afford to be distracted. There was none of the showbiz that turned so many people against him, because he had learned the hard way just how hard it was to win. The next time he dunked what could have just as easily been a tip-in, he looked as if he had jumped down from atop a ladder, as if he wanted to punish the rim for all of the big shots of his it had rejected over the last couple of years.
Those two dunks were representative of the explosive athlete he has always been, and the rest of his game was a demonstration of the hard work that suddenly promises to redefine him. He made 12 of his first 13 shots to clamp off the Celtics' hopes, and most of his scoring was generated mundanely from postups or jump shots or blue-collar moves meant to draw nothing more than fouls. He was converting turnaround jumpers over second defenders and dribbling into space for faceup shots. He literally couldn't miss. But then he couldn't afford to miss.
LeBron was responsible for the hatred faced by Miami these last two years, and now he was taking personal responsibility for fixing it. He had 30 points to give the Heat a 55-42 lead at the half, and it was only at the free throw line (5 of 9 overall) that he looked like his old vulnerable self. "It was a matter of too much LeBron," said Rivers. "Made every shot, set the tone for their whole team. I thought he gave them comfort in the way he played tonight."
The Celtics were shooting 50 percent at halftime yet looked awful. Rondo (21 points overall) would finish with 7 turnovers to blight his 10 assists. Had Pierce been able to play to his normal form then the Celtics might have been able to earn a chance by forcing James's teammates to make more plays in support of him. But James essentially fouled Pierce out of the first half with three personals in 14 minutes. Pierce would finish with a humbling line of 4 for 18 with 3 turnovers, and he, like his teammates, would rarely move the ball or play in rhythm. They were unable to score easily in transition because James beat them downcourt, and they had no offensive rebounds at halftime because James was clobbering them on the boards.
"Nobody likes getting thrown dirt on your face before you're not even dead," said Spoelstra. "He showed great resolve the last day, before you get to this point, and you could see it leading up."
When the Celtics were making a couple of brief third-quarter runs and their fans were cheering as if they were up by 18 instead of trailing by 10, it was LeBron who made the plays in response. When Boston tried to zone him, James sidestepped inside Rondo for a simple 6-footer to break the trend. Back came the Celtics to within 69-59, and Spoelstra was gesturing a play-call because it was too loud for him to be heard. Whatever he wanted was either brilliant or irrelevant, for James dribbled down the clock before taking it upon himself to step into a swishing three.
He was used to creating noise, but in this anti-universe he had created for himself silence had become the goal. With eight minutes remaining, Ryan Hollins was being sent by Rivers to the scorer's table as the white uniform of surrender. The arena that had defined LeBron to millions of his critics as an overrated grandstanding loser was now, and had been for many stretches going back to the first period, quiet. It was not until the final minute of regulation that the fans expressed themselves truly, by chanting "Let's Go Celtics" to send them off to Miami for a Game 7 on Saturday, and to maybe say goodbye forever to this team they love. To hear the few thousand who had remained behaving with so much heart was all the more gratifying for LeBron, because he had shut them all up.
"I won't regret Game 7," said James in promising to uphold this approach. "Win, lose or draw, I'm going to go in with the mindset like I always ... "
He stopped himself from continuing the lie.
"... like I've had this whole season," he went on, with refreshing honesty. "And we'll see what happens."
He wasn't making any predictions, and he wasn't thinking it was going to be easy. He was acknowledging that the pain of the last two years had narrowed his focus and enabled him to make these shots he might never have attempted otherwise. As James walked out of the arena an idiotic fan threw a drink down upon him, and he appeared to smile. Perhaps it tasted like Champagne.