With the outcome decided in the final seconds, LeBron James walked toward Mario Chalmers to begin his version of a celebration.
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He playfully punched his teammate twice in the chest.
Fitting, because James and the Miami Heat have now landed two blows against the Boston Celtics.
James scored 24 of his 35 points in the second half, Dwyane Wade added 28 and the Heat used a late 14-0 run to pull away and beat the aching Celtics 102-91 in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Tuesday night.
”Feel good about it,” James said. ”Series is far – far, far, far – away from over. It’s really just beginning for us.”
James shot 14 of 25 from the field, and logged 44 minutes with no turnovers. Chris Bosh finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds for Miami, which leads the best-of-seven 2-0.
Game 3 in Boston isn’t until Saturday night, and the Celtics may be particularly thankful for the break.
Rajon Rondo played through a balky back to score 20 points and add 12 assists for Boston, which got 16 points from Kevin Garnett and 13 from Paul Pierce – who retreated to the locker room for treatment on his strained left Achilles’ in the first half. Ray Allen was held to seven points, and left with what he said was a bruised chest cavity courtesy of an elbow from James in the third quarter.
”Being down 2-0 doesn’t scare any of us, doesn’t make us nervous,” Allen said. ”It’s just an opportunity to come out shining.”
Boston tied the game at 80 on a pair of free throws by Pierce with 7:10 left. The Celtics missed their next six shots and Miami pulled away, taking command of both the game and the series.
”That’s our staple. We know the only way for us to win games, especially in the playoffs, is to play defense,” James said. ”Everyone has each other’s back. If one guy gets beat, another steps up. They made a run, a heck of a run … but we just kept grinding, kept playing our principles, and we finally wore them down.”
Jeff Green scored 11 and Delonte West added 10 for the Celtics.
Even for a franchise with such fabled history as the Celtics, an 0-2 deficit represents a colossal challenge.
This is now the ninth time Boston has dropped the first two games in a best-of-seven series. In the previous eight, the Celtics prevailed only against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1969 NBA finals.
And it’s something this group of Celtics has never faced before, either.
The last time Boston lost the first two games of a playoff matchup was in 2004, when it was swept by Indiana. The current core of Celtics had lost Game 1s four other times before this series, then bounced back to win Game 2 each time, against Chicago and Orlando in 2009, then Cleveland and the Lakers in 2010.
Not this time.
”Nothing we can do about it,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. ”We’ve got a third game and we’ve got to take care of that. Whatever the past is, it is. They’ve won two games at home. But we can’t allow them to play like this, or it’s going to be tough at our place.”
To win this series, Boston will need to prevail four times in a five-game span – which it did in the first round against Miami last year, then again in the second round at the expense of James and the Cavaliers in the East semis. So it can be done, but neither James (7-0) nor Wade (5-0) has ever been part of a playoff series defeat after their clubs won the first two games.
”This is a great team we are going against right now,” James said. ”We’re just trying to give ourselves a good chance to win, just try to keep on attacking them, playing as hard as we can defensively, just trying to wear them down throughout the game, but it’s a great team.”
That’s one of the titles the Heat are trying to claim, too.
James won the MVP award in 2009 and 2010, his reign officially ending a couple hours before Tuesday’s game when the NBA made the long-expected announcement that Chicago’s Derrick Rose was this season’s top player.
James’ name did not appear on nine of the 121 ballots cast. Wade was entirely left off all but 10 of the ballots; voters were asked to rank the league’s best five players.
”At the end of the day, we don’t really play this game for individual awards,” Wade said. ”He has two MVP trophies, which is awesome. I have a finals MVP trophy. Our body of work speaks for itself. What we’ve done in this game speaks for itself.”
The Celtics had more than a chance to avoid the 0-2 hole.
James scored 12 points in the third quarter, one more than he managed in the first half, to help Miami take a 72-67 cushion into the final 12 minutes. James then added the first basket of the fourth, but Boston answered with a 13-6 run over the next 4 minutes to knot the game at 80.
The outcome was undecided – momentarily.
That’s when Miami’s big run began, including a three-point play where James dunked and got fouled after Joel Anthony kept an offensive rebound alive. Chalmers started it all with a 3-pointer – his only points of the night – off a pass from Wade, and Miami was on its way.
”Great trust,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Jermaine O’Neal had a chance to end Boston’s drought with 4:53 left, but his dunk was partially blocked by Anthony and bounced off the rim. James hit a long jumper from the left corner 17 seconds later, pushing the Heat lead to 92-80, their biggest to that point and the celebration was underway a few minutes later.
”Now the mental discipline begins,” Spoelstra said. ”This thing is just getting started.”
NOTES: All-Star guard Chris Paul sat near the Heat bench, with longtime James confidant Maverick Carter. … Shaquille O’Neal (calf) was out again for Boston, while the Heat said Udonis Haslem (foot) still ”isn’t ready” to return from November foot surgery. … Pierce played 33 minutes, giving him 4,259 in his Celtics playoff career, passing Dennis Johnson (4,258) for seventh in franchise history. … Heat guard Mike Bibby’s steal with 41 seconds left in the first quarter was his 100th in 87 playoff games.