This kind of game has always been there for LeBron James, always within arm's reach of the most talented player in the NBA. And if the Celtics are now to defy the odds and still win this Eastern Conference series against James and the Miami Heat, the key seems obvious.
They must derail James before he gets started on Saturday night, lest James become the locomotive he was at the TD Garden on Thursday.
The performance? Oh it was prolific, historic, downright Jordanesque, James going for 45 points and 15 rebounds in 45 minutes of the Heat's season-saving, 98-79 win over the Celtics. The numbers still do not do it justice. James had 14 points in the first quarter, 16 in the second and 11 more in the third, scoring 41 of his team's first 74 points on 17 of 22 shooting. Consequently, the fourth quarter was nothing more than a formality, true garbage time, Celtics coach Doc Rivers pulling centerpiece Kevin Garnett off the floor with a stunning 8:26 to go.
This is the way James likes it, of course.
Because the fourth quarter has never truly been his comfort zone, in this series or any other.
Consider: in the first quarters of the six games between the Celtics and Heat this postseason, James has scored 13, 6, 16, 12, 7 and 14 points on 29 of 49 shooting, an average of 11.3 points per game and a shooting percentage of 59.2. In the fourth quarters, he has scored 5, 6, 4, 6, 9 and 4 points on 11 of 26 shooting, an average of 5.8 points and a shooting percentage of 42.3. None of that has done anything to dispel the notion that James is far better at the beginning than he is at the end, which has been the biggest criticism thus far in James' championship-free career.
Here is a breakdown of James' first and fourth quarters in this series:
Game 1 - 13 points (6-9 FG)
Game 2 - 6 points (1-6 FG)
Game 3 - 16 points (7-12 FG)
Game 4 - 12 points (6-10 FG)
Game 5 - 7 points (3-5 FG)
Game 6 - 14 points (6-7 FG)
Total - 11.3 points average (29-49, 59.2 percent)
Game 1 - 5 points (2-3 FG)
Game 2 - 6 points (0-4 FG)
Game 3 - 4 points (2-4 FG)
Game 4 - 6 points (2-5 FG)
Game 5 - 9 points (3-6 FG)
Game 6 - 4 points (2-4 FG)
Total - 34 points, 5.8 points average (11-26, 42.3 percent)
In fairness to James, let's all acknowledge that his fourth-quarter numbers in Game 6 are deceiving for an obvious reason: the game was essentially over. Rivers himself admitted as much when he yanked Garnett, whom Rajon Rondo followed to the bench shortly thereafter. LeBron's numbers dipped in the fourth quarter of Game 6 because he didn't have to play.
But then, isn't that kind of the point in this series? Entering Game 6 on Thursday, Miami had outscored the Celtics by two points in the series, yet trailed in games, 3-2. With the series tied, Miami's scoring edge is now 21 points. The Heat have won the two games in this series decided by more than 10 points (Games 1 and 6) while the Celtics have gone 3-1 in the other four, and the most ardent Celtics fans will tell you that Boston would have won Game 2 as well were it not for some very questionable officiating.
Faced with the need for a big game, James can certainly deliver it -- as he did in Game 6 and as he did in Game 4 (40 points, 18 rebounds) against the Indiana Pacers. There is simply no stopping James or the Heat once they get rolling, which plays to the strengths of both James and the Heat.
Simply put, James and the Heat are frontrunners. They have been since their overhyped creation. Once the Heat get you down, they can beat you into submission. But if any club can withstand Miami's early assaults and put Miami into situation where the Heat must execute under the pressure that can only come in the final minutes, the entire equation changes.
Is James' performance in Game 6 somehow lessened by the existence of a meaningless fourth quarter? Hardly. If the Celtics couldn't keep up, that was their problem. (And it was.) We can all find examples of James' great postseason performances during his career, from the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit in 2007 to the Pacers and Celtics this spring. But trying to find James' most clutch moments is something altogether different, his last one coming, perhaps, against the Orlando Magic in a 2009 Eastern Conference final series that James and his Cleveland Cavaliers ultimately lost.
LeBron James is a basketball bully, folks, which does not diminish his talent. Mike Tyson intimidated opponents with his raw power, too. Tiger Woods has never won a major tournament in which he has failed to hold at least a share of the lead entering the final round. All of three of those men are regarded among the greats in their profession, though James remains the only one without a professional championship.
In the end, here's the point: James was transcendent in Game 6, but the fact that this game ended up as a blowout had far more to do with a lackluster performance by the Celtics. Lest anyone forget, James was every bit as brilliant against the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics in 2008 -- he had 45 that day, too -- but Paul Pierce answered with 41 and the Celtics won the game. Those Celtics did not implode like these Celtics did, which is why Boston is not going to the next round yet.
Come Saturday night, based on the pattern of this series, the pace of this blueprint for this game seems clear. James will come out like gangbusters in the first quarter, as he has essentially done in all six games, and the Celtics must withstand it. They must either stand in James way or answer on the other end of the floor, staying within striking distance. The Celtics were underdogs in this series from the start, remember, and the goal always has been to be right there with Miami and James at the end, with a chance to win.
After all, the series between the Celtics and Miami Heat may have taken another unexpected turn and changed some on Thursday night.
But Lebron James and the Miami Heat did not.
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