LeBron puts Celtic demons to rest
MIAMI — LeBron James turned the Celtics into believers. Now, can he convert the rest of the nation?
For two of the previous four seasons, Boston had been able to rattle James and knock him out of the playoffs. Yes, his Miami Heat won 4-1 last year in an East semifinal, but the Celtics sure thought they would have triumphed had point guard Rajon Rondo not seriously hurt his elbow in Game 3.
It looked in the Eastern Conference finals as if the Celtics once again would send James home and get the naysayers talking at an even higher volume. They held a 3-2 lead and had Game 6 at home.
Everyone knows what James did in Thursday's Game 6, totaling 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a resounding 19-point win that saved Miami's season. Then came Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
No, James couldn't duplicate his Game 6 effort. Nevertheless, he was pretty impressive. Playing all but the final 28 seconds, James scored 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds as the Heat beat the Celtics 101-88 to claim their second consecutive East crown and send James to the Finals for the third time in his NBA career.
When it was all over, James gave Celtics coach Doc Rivers a big hug. The two had a conversation before the forward moved to the center of the court to celebrate with his teammates.
"I told him to go do it," Rivers said of wanting Miami to win the Finals over Oklahoma City. "I'm proud of him. He gets too much heat."
After the Celtics lost, it was similar to when a candidate drops out of an election and gives his endorsement to the other guy. After watching what James did throughout the series, averaging 33.6 points and 11.0 rebounds, many of the Celtics would like their delegates to go to the James gang for the Finals that start Tuesday.
"Everybody should relax a little bit," Boston guard Keyon Dooling said of all the scrutiny James receives. "He is great for our game. He is our game. We need to uplift him instead of trying to tear him down. He is the guy who is the most unselfish superstar I ever have seen.
"He rebounds the ball, assists the ball and empowers his friends from his community. He is a model citizen. He should not have a stain on his reputation. I hope that it stops."
It won't, of course, if James doesn't win the first title of his nine-year NBA career. Rivers, on Friday, had called James the most scrutinized athlete ever.
Now, James gets another chance to win over his many detractors. Although the Thunder have homecourt advantage, don't count out the Heat, who have overcome adversity now for two straight series.
"I can't worry about what people say about me, about my game, about who I am as a person," James said after Saturday's win. "I can't get involved in that. People can have their own opinions, and rightfully so they can have their own opinions. For me, I just go out and play at a high level and do whatever it takes for us to win."
Miami forward Chris Bosh has a good idea what it takes for James to get the Heat to win: Show up.
It's been well chronicled how basketball stopped becoming fun for James last season after so many people turned against him for bolting his home state's Cleveland Cavaliers to join the perceived evil empire in Miami. The Heat ended up losing in the Finals to Dallas 4-2, and James didn't leave his house for two weeks after that.
James then made a vow to come back even better this season and to rediscover having fun. He won his third MVP award in four seasons and was more relaxed throughout season.
"He just has to believe in his ability and be himself," said Bosh, who scored 19 points, including three three-pointers, off the bench Saturday as the Big Three combined for 73 points (guard Dwyane Wade scored 23). "He doesn't have to step outside of who he is. He's the best basketball player in the world. He just has to show up and do what he's been working on and believe in himself because we believe in him. If he does that, we all like were we stand when the smoke clears."
James did just that after the Heat fell behind 3-2. His Game 6 performance was one for the ages.
But it wouldn't have meant a lot had the Heat lost Saturday. They did trail 82-81 with eight minutes left before James scored seven of his team's next 10 points to give Miami a 91-84 lead with 5 1/2 minutes left over the aging Celtics, who in the fourth quarter were getting wearier by the minute.
A driving dunk by James put the Heat up for good at 83-82. A three-pointer by James, which Rivers called a "half court" shot and went in the books as a 30-footer, gave them the 91-84 advantage.
"He was absolutely brilliant this series, and we all know it," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of James, whose first Finals loss was with Cleveland in 2007 when his weak supporting cast provided no chance at victory and the Cavaliers were swept by San Antonio. "He's playing at an historic level during the playoffs, driving us with his will. … He is pushing himself beyond his limits, and he's pushing the rest of the team as well."
Spoestra saw James do that in an East semifinal against Indiana, when the Heat fell behind 2-1 and would be without Bosh for the rest of the series due to an abdominal strain. James rose up to total 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists in a Game 4 win at Indiana, which was the first of three times in the past month he's saved Miami's season.
Bosh now has been back for three games after missing nine in a row, and he certainly will help, but how James plays against the Thunder will determine if he can win his first title.
"It's been a journey," James said about getting back to the Finals after the disappointment against Dallas, when James routinely disappeared in fourth quarters. "It's been a long ride, but we're happy we've been able to put ourselves in the position. … We couldn't shortcut anything this year. We're happy to be back in this position. We look forward to the challenge."
The Thunder, with lovable young star Kevin Durant, will be the people's choice in the Finals. But James was able to win over his longtime rivals, the Celtics. Now he'll see what he can do with the rest of the nation.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson