BOSTON – As LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) dined on the eve of the biggest game they had played together since chasing a gold medal in Beijing, the gravitas of Monday night hung over the table like an anvil. Across this season’s jagged journey, Game 4 at the Garden represented a test of mettle for them. It represented a brief, but bright blast of redemption.
Past failures danced on beams in the rafters, dangled over them like the 17 Celtics championship banners. For James and Wade, resistance had been long been futile here.
Judgment promised to be harsh and swift had they let these Celtics climb back into the series, let the Celtics heap upon the Heat a bigger burden to try and topple them in these Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat could win this series without ever winning in Boston, but they believed it was imperative to claim complete control and deliver a blow to the Celtics where they lived. They needed to dispose of the Celtics and needed to do it in the belly of this belligerent beast.
“One of the biggest games of my career,” James said. “D-Wade had lost 11 straight in this building. I haven’t had much success in this building. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves ….”
For everything James had delivered in this 98-90 victory – an avalanche of twisting, tough shots in the final minutes of regulation – he found himself standing on the floor in a timeout replaying one more mistake in a year when he had been remembered for too many of them. As he tried to win the game on a drive to the rim moments earlier, James lost control of the ball with 20 seconds left and watched it drift into the hands of the Celtics’ Ray Allen(notes).
For the third time in the final minutes, James had turned the ball over, and it wouldn’t matter he had delivered seven straight points. Those wouldn’t be remembered as rightful restitution with a loss. The scoreboard blinked 86-86 and James had a long timeout, in his words, “to kick myself.” As they waited for the Celtics to inbound the ball, Wade wandered to him and belted over the din the urgent and obvious truth of the matter: They needed a stop, and, yes, everyone would be watching James get it. The ball was destined to go to his man, Paul Pierce(notes), and James had been in this moment too many times for the stakes to be lost on him.
“The only way for me to redeem myself was to get a stop one-on-one against Paul,” he said.
James’ mind was running back years of last-second scenarios with these Celtics, all the sets they like to run for Pierce, and it kept coming back to the same thing: Get a stop, get these gassed Celtics into overtime and get himself out of harm’s way. His inclination was correct as Pierce would ultimately try to take him alone, but it wasn’t before a pick-and-roll call with a flare for Allen in the corner unraveled. James gave Pierce nothing – not an inch, not a sliver of light in the lane – and Pierce’s step-back jumper clanked off the backboard, the rim and bounced James’ way in the Garden.
Overtime and over-and-out for the Celtics. They were too tired, too worn, too unable to go longer and harder against the Heat. Miami watched Celtics coach Doc Rivers calling timeouts to rest his players, watched Kevin Garnett(notes) too run down to take the ball inside anymore. The Heat watched Rajon Rondo(notes) unable to use his dislocated left elbow for much with the ball, unable to find his teammates with the kind of sharp, crisp passes they were used to getting from him.
The Heat watched the Celtics fighting Father Time, beleaguered bodies and worn-down spirits. And together, they knew it was time to take Boston out, time to summon something that they had wanted for themselves when they came together over the summer. The last will and testament of the Boston Celtics.
James had 35 points, 14 rebounds and a long sigh of relief when Pierce couldn’t close out regulation and couldn’t steal Game 4. Now, the Heat go back to the shores of Biscayne Bay for a Game 5 on Wednesday that can thrust them into the Eastern Conference finals.
As the Celtics walked into the tunnel for perhaps the final time this season, there were fans screaming to them, “We’ll see you on Friday,” but there wasn’t much of a response out of the players. This isn’t where the older, tired team wants to be, chasing from this far behind. To beat the Heat three straight times would necessitate a colossal collapse, and these Heat hardly seem constituted for such a catastrophe. They’re too talented, too hardened, and James and Wade are too downright dominant now.
James had played poorly in Game 3, and Wade had been accused of a dirty takedown on Rondo that dislocated his elbow. Wade had grown testy of the questioning about the play, about his intentions, but he and James had to understand it was all part of pursuing this imperfect science of conquering playoff basketball. Heat president Pat Riley visited his players at practice on Sunday, and regaled his stars with stories and lessons to be learned out of his Showtime Lakers days here in Boston. There was no underestimating the importance of holding back the Celtics, of James and Wade standing strong in the ferocity of the failures that had chased them into Game 4.
Over dinner, Wade said, “Me and LeBron talked about that … this is the biggest game for us since 2006-2007 when he was playing against the Detroit Pistons and I played in the [NBA] Finals. We had to approach it that way.”
For their personal demons, they treated this like some kind of Armageddon. Yet truth be told, this game was no bigger for James than those losses here in the playoffs with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Only now, James had a better chance for victory. Only now, he has Wade and Chris Bosh(notes) on his side. And only now, perhaps, James understands so much more the redemptive powers of resilience, of trying again and again to get it right. Sometimes he can say some foolish things, and that’s why he required himself to start his postgame news conference with an apology for calling a reporter’s question “retarded” on Saturday. No one expects him to go without mistakes, just to acknowledge them, to be self-aware, accountable, and ultimately everyone gets to move on. This used to be harder for him to do, and, so, he paid a price for it.
Now, James has learned that pasts can be reworked, rewired and redeemed. And there he stood in the middle of this arena with so many bad memories, with so much failure, and tried to free his mind from those late turnovers in Game 4 – mistakes that threatened to eradicate all that he had done in regulation and preempt all that he knew he could do to these exhausted Celtics in overtime.
“Get a stop,” Dwyane Wade yelled to him, and James understood that no one else could spare him his basketball misdeeds on Monday night. Pierce promised to come for him, and James needed to get between the Celtics star and the basket, between Pierce and James’ own sweet redemption. James never gave Pierce a chance to make a move on him, and a bad shot bounced off the rim. Finally – finally – something bounced James’ way in the Garden.
And now, all those demons danced away, disappearing into the darkest reaches of the arena. One chance, one stop and, just maybe, LeBron James and the Miami Heat had closed down this gym for the season, closed down this Boston Celtics’ championship run for good.