LeBron sends Cleveland a message

LeBron James breaks away for a dunk in a fourth quarter stretch where he scored 10 straight points for the Heat

MIAMI – In the instant the clock bled to 0:00, LeBron James’(notes) instinct hadn’t been to preen, flex and degrade the moment with a barrage of I-told-you-so’s. He had come, a year in the making, crashing down on the Boston Celtics.

And yet before James leaped into the air Wednesday night, before he found Dwyane Wade(notes) for a long, long embrace, he sought an empty swath of basketball court amid the bedlam of a 97-87 Miami Heat victory over the Boston Celtics. He dropped to his knees, bowed his head and turned his eyes away from the pulsating lights and party music. Finally, LeBron James had beaten them. All alone on the floor, he looked like a man soaked in some sort of salvation.

Beating Boston didn’t inspire bravado out of James, but contrition.

“I couldn’t do it by myself against that team,” James said. “I apologize for the way it happened, but I knew this opportunity was once in a lifetime.”

As moments to make an apology go, it probably won’t please Cleveland that James chose the end of the victorious conference semifinal series that he lost for them a year ago. For all his talent and regular-season productions, this has been a year of failures when everyone’s been examining him most closely. James deserved the criticism that had come his way a year ago. He had earned it, but he had earned this victory with 33 points and his part in a hellacious defense.

In his exit of Cleveland, James failed miserably. Beyond the infomercial on cable television, his enabled behavior had spiraled behind the scenes in Cleveland. And here, James found a stronger organizational structure, but a sluggish transition to winning big games with big plays.

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And still, in pro sports today, he’s the next iconic figure expected to win a championship to validate his greatness. With the way James and Wade huddled together here, they need to win several championships. Of course, the Heat can win only one this season, and they’re coming hard for it now. Boston fell apart with Rajon Rondo’s(notes) back and elbow, with Kevin Garnett’s(notes) tired legs and Jermaine O’Neal(notes) rushing to the locker room for treatment. The final two minutes were something straight out of Pat Riley’s wildest dreams. The game was tied 87-87, and the series threatened to return to Boston with the Celtics trailing 3-2.

Together, James and Wade, who finished with 34 points, were magnificent. “Those two guys are monsters,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.

The ending came like a jackhammer out of James in the final minutes – with 10 consecutive points to end the game. As closers go, James was Mariano Rivera breaking bats on Wednesday. Out of nowhere, the Heat delivered a torrent of 16 consecutive points to end the game, and release the Celtics' grip on the game.

“In order for me to move on with my career, we had to go through them,” James said.

For some, this turned into too much of a celebration for a conference semifinal. Truth be told, it spoke of the Heat's respect for the Celtics. As much as this partnership was unprecedented, it was spawned out of Boston’s ability to make a Big 3 the freshly minted standard for championship success. Boston inspired so much of the reasons James, Wade and Chris Bosh(notes) came together.

As thirtysomethings the Celtics had come together in trades. As twentysomethings, the Heat were a creation of free agency. Four years ago, the Celtics had such a breezy regular season. “We went through a seamless year,” Rivers said. “People actually liked us. We hadn’t gone through anything.”

It’s so much of the reason why the Atlanta Hawks pushed the Celtics to seven games to start the ’08 playoffs. The Heat’s struggles turned out to fortify them, test resolve and commitment. Rivers used to groan to his assistant coaches about the criticism of the Heat, because, he said, “I thought it helped them.”

Rivers plans to return as Celtics coach and still thinks a re-tooled Boston franchise can take its shot at the Heat. Maybe – but it will be chasing Miami. Only the Heat will be able to beat the Heat in the next several seasons.

Yes, Boston mattered to the Miami Heat. The Celtics are getting older, breaking down, but they made LeBron James and Miami go through them.

At halftime Wednesday, Wade had been carrying the Heat, James so-so. He made Wade a promise: “I will make sure I show up for you.” He did.

And so, in the biggest Heat moment of the year, James still had his mind on Cleveland and Akron and his home. I apologize, LeBron James said on television, but beating the Celtics here meant never having to say you’re sorry in South Florida.

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