MIAMI -- A few thousand Celtics fans sat through the humiliation of LeBron James' virtuoso performance in Game 6 at Boston for two reasons. One, they wanted to send the Celtics back to Miami with the understanding that some of them still believed they could upset the Heat. And they also wanted to say a proper goodbye, in case James should prove them wrong.
"Let's go Celtics!" they chanted to rhythmic clapping. "Let's Go Celtics!"
The Celtics themselves chose to view the farewell inspirationally as they look ahead to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals here Saturday night.
"Kevin [Garnett] was sitting next to me," Celtics guard Ray Allen recalled of being on the bench late in the game, "and I said these are the best fans I've ever played in front of or ever seen in my life. They understand the situation that is before us, and we understand it. That was them sending us off, letting us know, 'Hey, this is still well and alive -- we need you guys to go down there and get a win for us.' We all felt it on the bench.
"It was special. I'll talk about that forever, just knowing being down 20 and these people are still standing up, cheering us on, because they know we just have to win one game."
It is so easy to view James' explosive 45-point performance as a sign of inevitability. After fulfilling his promise under the worst kind of pressure in Game 6 at Boston, where he had suffered so many losses over the years, is he going to allow his Heat to surrender a Game 7 on their home floor? But the Celtics have another point of view, based on their long-standing confidence against Miami and the inspiration of their fans.
"I think our guys should take that very personal," Boston coach Doc Rivers of being dominated by James. "He made some fantastic shots. I didn't think we played him with a lot of force, though. He made great shots, but we can play better defense.
"Did you hear our crowd the last three minutes of the game? What other crowd in the NBA does that? It's a terrific place to play. The fans were unbelievable. They did their part. We just didn't do ours.
"That was a great opportunity, but we have another opportunity. We get to play another game, Game 7. I would say most of the people would have said, 'Wow, they're going to get to Game 7, we'll take it.' That's the way we have to view it. We won a game at their [arena], they won 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."
The game plan is obvious. The Celtics will need a strong start offensively, similar to the inspired start James provided in Miami's 98-79 victory on Thursday. They must prevent James from establishing confidence in his jump shot, which he converted with overwhelming consistency whether he was turning around from the post or facing up from the perimeter. If they succeed in those two areas, they can give Rajon Rondo (10 assists and seven turnovers in Game 6) a better chance of regaining command of the pace, which could enable Paul Pierce and Garnett (a combined 10-of-32 shooting in Game 6) to rediscover their rhythm.
The odds are that the Celtics' age, injuries, limited depth and lack of practice time throughout the playoffs will prevent them from surviving these harsh circumstances and returning to the NBA Finals for a third time in five years. At the same time, these Celtics have demonstrated that no opinion matters but their own. They were surprise NBA finalists in 2010, and they weren't expected to win three straight games this series -- including a crucial Game 5 win on the road to steal a 3-2 lead.
"Now we have a series," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "We want to respectfully go back to our corner and get ready for Game 7. We have a very stubborn, tough minded group. So now our focus has to continue to quiet everything from outside and focus on how we get Game 7."
Spoelstra will be counting on James to provide the same type of leadership he showed in Game 6. His teammates described him as no-nonsense going into the win-or-else game.
"He came out with an attack mentality right from the get go," Spoelstra said. "That just pumped up the entire team with a tremendous amount of confidence. He is arguably the most skilled player in this league. He has a lot to his repertoire, and he was able to showcase a lot of that tonight. We needed every single bit of it, but particularly him coming out and setting the tone. That's not just the game -- everybody notices the game; we saw the last 24 hours."
Will James be able to pick up where he left off and launch a new era by opposing Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals? Or will the Celtics return home to play for their fans yet again?
"You can see their resolve in the locker room," Rivers said after the Game 6 loss. "They're not just going to pack for Sunday. They're going to bring suits for Tuesday, and they're going to bring suits for Thursday."
Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals will be played Tuesday and Thursday in Oklahoma City, and the Celtics were looking forward to them. "And that's the way we're going to plan to do it," Rivers said.