BOSTON – This was the Bleep You performance everyone waited for from LeBron James, the Hulk bursting out of his clothes, flexing his muscles and twisting steel in his bare hands. Out of the tunnel James marched into the Garden, and somewhere between the parquet floor and the 17 championship banners dangling in the rafters, he delivered a peerless performance that the sport hasn't seen in nearly half a century: 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and a Game 7.
James had come out making one devastating shot after another in the Miami Heat's 98-79 victory, his eyes giving nothing, his expression staid, his strength, speed and skill something straight out of the stratosphere. James wasn't going down to these old men, the way he had gone down in those previous elimination games in his career. When James plays this way, he pushes past a generational talent that borders on the ferocity that comes with a force of nature.
"We just gave him the ball and got out the way," Dwyane Wade said. "Locked in from the beginning of the game like I've never seen him before."
Resistance was futile, and now comes Game 7 for the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat to determine the Eastern Conference champion. James drained all the joy from the Garden, all the breath out of the Celtics. Wilt Chamberlain had gone for 50 points, 15 rebounds and six assists in the '64 Finals against the Celtics, and the NBA had to wait 48 years to see nearly all those points and rebounds and assists thrust together.
James didn't dance and spar with the Celtics. He didn't facilitate, get a feel for the game and slowly, surely impose his will. No, James walked into the Garden with a crowbar and started cracking it upside the heads of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. Nothing subtle here.
"Absolutely fearless," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Jump shots and fades, twisting, driving layups and throwback dunks plucked out of the air. Twenty-six shots, nineteen makes and each succeeding shot seemed to take a little more out of the Celtics. Thirty points had tumbled down on the Celtics by halftime, and the Celtics never found their footing in Game 6. Rondo tossed passes out of bounds, and Pierce missed open shots, and Garnett couldn't make those high, arching jumpers that had pushed Boston to three straight series victories and the cusp of a third NBA Finals in five years. James jumped the Celtics in a dark alley and left them bloody, battered and scraping themselves off the pavement.
"He brought it to us, and we never gave it back," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
In a declaration that was part practicality, part swagger, someone had scribbled on the grease board in the Celtics' dressing room, "Pack for a week." Between Boston and a flight to Oklahoma City for Game 1 comes the Game 7 the Celtics never wanted to play, that they never wanted to drag their tired old bones down to South Beach. "This was basically our Game 7 on our floor," Allen said. Yes, this was the chance to close out the Heat, and the Celtics let James dictate the terms of engagement. Desperation rules the day in most playoff series, and the Heat had come to Boston with heaps of it.
For those expecting to see a hesitant, stilted James for Game 6, they were greeted with the three-time MVP as an evolved, efficient two-way force. For all the criticism heaped upon him after that Game 5 loss that pushed the Heat to the brink, he made the wise choice to trust fundamentals over the manufactured fury of the public onslaught.
[Slideshow: LeBron James' career moment in Game 6]
When asked about his motivation for Game 6, James' response told you everything you needed to know about the way he's been locked into this postseason, the way his mind is rigged right.
"I didn't use any motivation," James said. "I just went to my habits. I went to what I built over the course of the season, over the course of the years. I wasn't going to feel sorry for myself. … I don't need no extra motivation. I know how big these games are."
That's a mature, evolved response because James doesn't need to work himself into a frenzy, into an angry, unnatural lather. He's too good, and his talent will carry him if he comes to these pressure games with something far more lasting, with far more staying power than responding to the hellacious firestorm that surrounds his successes and failures. His personality is different than a Kobe Bryant, a Michael Jordan, and allowing for that has been a wise plan of action. There was a rage within James for this Game 6, a resolve, but it was contained within the context of the surgical way in which he took apart the Celtics in his own personal pop-a-shot game.
Forty-eight years since an NBA star had constructed a playoff line comparable to James' 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, and wouldn't you know, that, of all stars, it was Chamberlain. He's the legend too often partnered with James, a historic physical specimen and star with galaxial statistics who ultimately wore his two titles but just one as the centerpiece as some kind of betrayal of his prodigious talent, too little to show for so much.
These are different times, James is a different figure, but winning matters. Winning changes everything for an athlete, and James spared himself a hellacious summer with this Game 6 victory. During the game, his personal PR rep and a Nike official were outside the restroom.
"What did you say to him?" the PR guy asked the sneaker rep.
"I told you!" the Nike guy yelled.
"What did you say to him?" he asked again.
"I TOLD YOU!" the sneaker guy yelled louder.
They were so pleased, but people were kidding themselves if they thought they knew what James would do on Thursday night. No one knew. Yet James refused to let one more championship chase perish beneath these championship banners, beneath the burden of his prodigious pressure and talent. All this did was get LeBron James and these Heat to a Game 7, get them within 48 minutes of where they had gone a year ago, the NBA Finals.
Nevertheless, they were on the brink, and James played the part of the best player on the planet when it mattered most. Everyone had been waiting, and here came that Bleep You game at the Garden, a June performance here worthy of those that Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan had come into Boston and delivered themselves.
Yet, even they never left the floor in Boston and had a drink spilled onto their heads the way James did on his way through the tunnel at game’s end on Thursday night. The final act of Game 6 came out of that lout of a fan, but make no mistake: James had the final word here and it turned out to be one of the most startling and spectacular performances of his starry basketball life. This was LeBron James’ Bleep You Game 6, punctuated with his most ominous promise for the Celtics: “I won’t regret Game 7.”
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