BOSTON — When Dwyane Wade shook loose from Marquis Daniels, stepped back behind the 3-point line and launched a shot that would win the game for one team or the other Sunday, the basketball was not the only thing that hung in the air.
If the entire TD Garden was on edge, nobody took a deeper metaphorical breath than LeBron James and Paul Pierce, spectators from their own benches after fouling out.
How torturous it must have been for both of them, players whose rivalry began in earnest in the 2008 postseason, when they were foils in an epic Game 7 that helped set the course for each of their reputations — Pierce, his petulant early years having been whitewashed by the narrative of a winner/warrior, and James, who no matter the circumstances, cannot seem to win.
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When Wade’s shot, dead straight, hit the front of the rim and bounced away, it meant that the Celtics had survived in overtime, 93-91, and that the Eastern Conference finals were even and headed toward a conclusion that appears as uncertain — and wildly entertaining — as the first four games of the series.
It also led the two team’s bellwethers, Pierce and James, down a familiar path of emotions as they play out their fourth series against one another in the last five postseasons. James, having squandered a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, took a step forward as Wade released his shot, ready to run out and embrace him, only to stop dead in his tracks and recoil when the ball bounced away. Pierce, who stood helplessly near Wade when he shot, exited the court shaking his fist and wearing a wide smile.
“Words can’t even describe the type of game it is,” Pierce said. “I mean it’s a funny game, you know? The way the ball bounces, the way things go. I was sitting there on the sideline in overtime, I was like this is probably going to be an instant classic type of game.”
That would not be overselling it. The Celtics, for the third consecutive game, jumped to a lead of at least 15 points — 18 in this case — and then hung on as the Heat roared back. The final minutes of regulation and overtime gave way to a pile of plot twists.
One of the enduring ones, in a series in which the two teams battled for each inch of the floor — Kevin Garnett described it as two teams trading punches — was a familiar one. The officiating was front and center again.
The Celtics carped about Miami shooting 47 free throws in the Heat’s Game 2 overtime win, the Heat moaned about Wade not going to the line once in a Game 3 loss, and this one left both teams wondering how two star players could foul out, and how Rajon Rondo had to mind his P’s and Q’s to keep from joining them after being called for four fouls, three of them offensive.
“It was like a chess match,” Celtics guard Ray Allen said. “They took our queen and we took their queen.”
When Pierce, whose last two fouls were offensive, was whistled for throwing Shane Battier aside while trying to post up 38 seconds into overtime, it marked the third time in the last five games that Pierce has fouled out — including the waning minutes of Game 7 against Philadelphia.
“It’s French,” Celtics guard Mickael Pietrus, from the French-speaking island of Guadalupe, said with a grin. “That’s a déjà vu.”
It also did not hurt Boston that it could still count on the superb Rondo, a resurgent Allen and a determined Garnett. But when Pietrus drew the sixth foul from James, with 1:51 left in overtime, wrapping his left arm around James’ waist and pulling him to the ground after an initial collision, it was quite different for the Heat.
It was the first time James had ever fouled out in a playoff game, the first time he fouled out as a member of the Heat, and only the fourth time in his nine-year career that he had fouled out.
But it meant that two of Miami’s Big Three — James and the injured Chris Bosh — were on the bench, giving the visitors a pre-Decision look, Wade alongside the likes of James Jones, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers.
“Without Chris, without myself,” James said. “(Wade) probably looked around and thought it was his old team — UD, Rio, JJ and those guys out there.”
The loss did not dull James’ sense of humor, the gallows variety anyway, and as he sat at his locker, engulfed by a thicket of reporters, he did not appear dispirited by another empty playoff trip to Boston, where he has won two of 11 games. As James answered questions, he leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head while his knees were packed in ice and his feet soaked in a tub of ice water.
But the ice could not take away the sting of fouling out, of not being there at the end.
“It’s very difficult because I know how to play the game of basketball and I don’t need an advantage of holding somebody or pushing somebody down,” said James, who was called for three offensive fouls and got a double foul wrestling with Garnett.
When James was whistled for his sixth, he turned his palms up and looked up at the officials with disbelief as he sat on the court near Pietrus. James then slowly walked to the bench at the other end of the court, untucked his jersey and shook his head.
“I don’t foul out. I don’t foul out. I don’t foul out,” James said later when he was asked to recount what he was thinking during that walk. “Sometimes, if I’m going to foul out, that sixth foul, I wish I would have earned it and it would have actually been a foul on me, so . . .”
James’ voice trailed off.
“Whatever,” he said.
James was not asked any questions about the 3-pointer he sank that tied the score with 37.5 seconds left in regulation or the offensive foul he drew from Garnett that earned Miami a chance to win the game before heading to overtime. They were plays, both clutch and heady, like the ones he made last year to win Game 4 in overtime against Boston to seize control of a series the Heat closed out in five games.
But James knows better than most how debits and credits are tallied.
Those plays, along with the 29 points he scored, were all but forgotten, and not solely because James fouled out and the Heat eventually lost. They were eclipsed because as the clock wound down with the game tied in regulation, James drove toward the key and — with a double team approaching — bounced a cross-court pass that forced a hurried, errant shot by Haslem.
At the end of regulation in Game 2, James took that shot and missed. The Heat, however, won in overtime. This time, he passed and the result of the play was the same. But Miami did not win this game and so the next 48 hours will be consumed by sound and fury about James.
If Wade’s shot had fallen, it would have been someone else’s turn to answer the hard questions. Pierce and the other aging Celtics would have had to contemplate the end of an era, which with the impending free agency of Garnett and Allen, is certainly upon them.
Late Sunday night, Pierce borrowed more time and a little more good fortune, things that for all his accolades, appear to be in increasingly short supply for James.