BOSTON -- It remains difficult to process what may happen in Game 6 of the Eastern finals here Thursday night. The old, injured and underdog Celtics may win for the fourth straight time -- and if they win then the heavily-favored Heat, with access to their full roster, will suffer a defeat worse than their collapse in the NBA Finals last season.
"It doesn't matter how you get there," insisted Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "We still have a great opportunity. We're still alive, and we have an opportunity to win and change the momentum of this series again. So much about the playoffs is maintaining your perspective and your balance as a basketball team."
Balance has been a defining element of this series. The Celtics have recovered from an 0-2 deficit because of the variety of outstanding performances they've received around their mainstay point guard Rajon Rondo. The Heat have been outplayed since Game 1 because they've moved away from running their offense, with Dwyane Wade in particular feeling the need to go one-on-one, for lack of better scoring options.
"We plan to win the ballgame," said Wade. "We've got to win. That's all we got to do. Can't listen to the noise. I'm not. I'm sure our team is not."
Wade knows that his Heat have lost 15 of their last 16 games here in Boston. "You can't say, 'Oh well, we're down one point and we've lost 15 out of 16 here, we're not going to win,''' said Wade. "We've played under a lot of pressure. We've played under a lot of bright lights."
"I know how much pain this team has given me over the years," said James of the Celtics, who knocked his Cavaliers out of the playoffs on Boston's way to the NBA Finals in 2008 and '10. "I guess it's only right that we will be going up there in an elimination game. In order for us to keep our season going, we have to win in their building."
Spoelstra was considering whether to promote Chris Bosh to the starting lineup after his return in Game 5. Bosh had missed the previous three weeks with an abdominal strain. He was helpful offensively in Game 5, but at the other end Bosh was exploited by Kevin Garnett, who sneaked behind him repeatedly for position around the basket.
"My timing is off a little bit, I made some mistakes that I can definitely put in the back of my mind for [Game 6]," said Bosh of his defensive work. "We just have to rise to the occasion. There's a little bit of extra added pressure, but that can sometimes be a good thing. And I think it will be a great thing for us.''
The Heat are facing this pressure because they failed to take advantage of a 3-for-15 shooting, five-turnover performance by Rondo, who has been the MVP of the series. Rondo more than offset those negatives with 13 assists and 4 steals, and he was able to depend on Kevin Garnett for 26 points and 11 rebounds.
The Celtics were a confounding playoff team prior to this series. They lost a tight Game 5 at Atlanta in the opening round before closing out the Hawks in Game 6 here, and they enabled the low-scoring 76ers to take them to a Game 7. Ray Allen's difficulties with an ankle bone-spur injury create uncertainty, along with the unreliable contributions of their bench from game to game. It is no sure thing that they will seize this chance to reach the NBA Finals for the third time in the five years of the Big Three.
But they've also established an ongoing four-game trend of controlling the pace of play via their defense and Rondo's command of the ball. Garnett has been outstanding in transition and in the post, and Paul Pierce has overcome a knee injury to make big shots, including his big three over James at the end of Game 5.
Spoelstra downplayed the opportunity presented by this game. Tonight, James, the regular-season MVP, has a chance to prove he can overcome Rondo and the Celtics under the worst circumstances. LeBron has played well enough individually while averaging 31.8 points in the series, but he will need to play one of the best games of his career in order to reverse the trend of Celtic dominance.
"It means a lot to me, how much work I've put into this year," said James. "No one said it was going to be easy. I'm looking forward to the challenge, me personally. I'm looking forward to it more than probably anyone on the team. So I'm going to lead these guys in the right direction, and hopefully it results in us winning."