BOSTON — Erik Spoelstra was not quite all smiles, but he was close. He had rolled the ball out for LeBron James, who picked it up and pretty much did whatever he wanted Thursday as the Heat scored a solid blow against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
“Good win,” Spoelstra said. “And now we have a series. That’s what everybody wants, right?”
Honestly? No, coach. That was not what everyone seemed to want. In the last two days, James and the Heat were skewered from every angle, so much so that had they lost Game 6 and been eliminated from the playoffs, it was worth wondering if there were any negative storylines left. Perhaps some literary critic could have disparaged James’ choice of reading material, The Hunger Games, for its role in his downfall.
And James ruined it. With one of the strongest playoff performances of his career, the three-time Most Valuable Player scored 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting and added 15 rebounds (just for the heck of it) to even the series at three games each. Saturday’s Game 7 in Miami awaits, and it no longer seems certain that the headlines will write themselves.
“I don’t really get too far in sports talk radio or anything like that too much,” James said. “Over the postseason, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and been watching movies and things like that. I don’t really hear the outside noise of what’s said about me or what’s said about our team.”
Even if that is not entirely true — James referenced a preseason interview he did with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that was shown in heavy rotation, and how would he know how often it was played if not for turning on the TV every once in a while? — his version of events fit, for one night. He could have said the exact opposite. He could have said that, yes, he internalized every criticism and unleashed it on the Celtics in a torrent of points, and nobody would have argued with him. With excellence comes the ability to form the narrative however he pleases.
Only out of a performance like Thursday’s could there be two contradictory viewpoints of James’ play, yet both be accurate. Dwyane Wade agreed it was the best he had seen James play in their time together, that “he was locked in from the beginning of the game like I’ve never seen him before.” Meanwhile, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo was not so quick to label it that, only that it was James’ best game “from a scoring aspect, maybe.”
“But I don’t base a great performance on just shooting,” Rondo added. “He’s had a lot of games where he’s had triple-doubles, chase-down blocks. He’s a great player.”
Wade and Rondo’s takes may have conflicted, but both were true. It was James at his best, but it was not necessarily the best of James. He exhibited the full brunt of his gift and his curse. The easier he makes it look in games like this, the quicker he is chastised when he comes up short of greatness.
First-time champions seldom walk to titles the way the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls did, playing only two games above the minimum 15 required at that time to win it all. More often, the road is like that faced by the 2007-08 Celtics, who were taken to two Game 7s and suffered a double-digit loss in Detroit that presented questions of their own intestinal fortitude. Every setback for these Heat, though, is transformed into a death knell.
“Nobody likes getting dirt thrown on your face before you’re even dead,” Spoelstra said.
Forget dirt being thrown. Before Game 6, the dirt had been shoveled and packed in around the lifeless body of the Heat’s title hopes. There were examinations of precisely how the organization could dispense with some of its $17 million men in the coming offseason. James was supposed to stay buried and craft his ending so it fit the epitaph.
There was no real chance of that happening Thursday, though. James came up big in a big game, and we have a series, whether everybody likes it or not.