LeBron James has apparently come up with a counter to the perception that he shrivels in the final moments of a close game, and it's one that should terrify Celtics fans:
Play with such extraordinary force of talent and will in the game's first 40 or so minutes that the final ticks on the clock are irrelevant to the outcome.
At least that's the approach James seemed to take last night, when he silenced, however temporarily, the noise about his ability in the clutch with a performance that was exceptional even by the reigning most valuable player's standards.
James scored 45 points -- 14 in the first quarter when Miami raced to a 26-16 lead, 30 at the half (on 12 of 14 shooting), and 41 (with 10 rebounds) after three -- as the Heat breezed to a 98-79 victory over the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He shot a staggering 19-of-26 from the field, accounting for more than half of the Heat's 37 field goals.
"It’s a great feeling to be in, when you feel like everything you put up is going in,” said James in a surprisingly subdued tone afterward. “But you can never let go. You can never let it die down or anything like that."
It wasn't just about his shooting. He played his usual relentless defense, and in 44 minutes and 49 seconds of playing time, he added 15 rebounds and 5 assists, becoming the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1964 to put up a line matching or exceeding 45-15-5 in a playoff game.
"That's the best I've ever seen him,'' said Dwyane Wade, who had 17 points on 6 of 17 shooting. "You just give him the ball and get out of the way.''
James was so overwhelming in his brilliance that the "good job, good effort'' kid is going to have to come up with some far better superlatives should he match the performance in Game 7 Saturday.
"I hope now you guys can stop talking about LeBron and how he doesn't play in big games," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "He was pretty good tonight. So we can put that to bed."
For much of Game 6, as James drilled difficult shot after difficult shot -- his step-back jumper was exasperatingly unstoppable to the Celtics' helpless defenders -- it seemed as though he'd surpass his playoff career-high of 49 points, challenge his career-best of 56, and make a run at the 63 Michael Jordan dropped on the Celtics in Game 2 of a first-round series in 1986. And he might have, had his performance not single-handedly turned the game into a rout early in the fourth quarter.
"It was a matter of too much LeBron,'' said Rivers. ''He was absolutely sensational. Made every shot, set the tone for their whole team. I thought he gave them comfort in the way he played tonight."
There was little comfort to be found anywhere for the Celtics, who airballed their chance to close out a series few thought they could win when it began. Now they must go to Miami for a Game 7 against what should be a confident James, who outscored the Celtics' Big Three alone by 14 points while sapping all drama from a game that began with great anticipation. The Celtics' offense was all fits and stops save for an occasional flash from Rajon Rondo (21 points, 10 assists), and it never did put together anything resembling a threatening run. There seemed to be a flicker of chance with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter when a Mickael Pietrus tip-in pulled the Celtics to within 10 at 69-59, but LeBron answered with a 3-point dagger, and that was that.
"LeBron was absolutely fearless tonight,'' said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "The way he approached the last 48 hours ... nobody likes getting dirt thrown on your face before you're dead.''
Those who might be tempted to do the same to the Celtics before Game 7 -- hello, ESPN studio show -- might be wise to refrain from doing so given the habitual resilience of a bruised and aging team that will rank as one my favorites from the post-Bird era no matter Saturday's outcome.
But the problems that plagued them tonight cannot arise again. The Celtics received just two points from the bench in the first three quarters. They had just one more assist (14) than they had turnovers (13) overall. They were 1 of 14 from 3-point territory. And perhaps most worrisome of all, Paul Pierce, so often a foil for James, had another terribly inefficient shooting night.
Pierce's huge 3-pointer in Game 5 masked a 6-for-19 performance ... and that was actually better than he shot in Game 6. Pierce hit just 4 of 18 shots Thursday night, missed all six of his 3-point attempts, and shot just two free throws. The cocky, creative scorer who went shot-for-shot with James in Game 7 of the 2008 Finals, scoring 41 points to then-Cavalier LeBron's 45 in a Celtics victory, was overmatched and overwhelmed Thursday, finishing with just 9, 20 percent of LeBron's total.
"He'll bounce back. Paul is a big-game player,'' Rivers said. "Game 7s are the biggest that you can possibly have. What I saw tonight, I thought he was ready for the game. He just didn't have a great game. We don't look into it much more than that, at least I don't.
"You know, he was down. Kevin was down. The whole locker room was down. You could see the resolve in the locker room. They're not just going to pack for Sunday. They're going to bring suits for Tuesday, and they're going to bring suits for Thursday. And that's the way we're going to play through it.''
The hope, perhaps faint, perhaps burning bright, is that they will go to South Beach and duplicate Game 5, but with better shooting from Pierce in the first 47 minutes. Even after witnessing his masterpiece, it's fair to wonder whether Thursday's performance is one more grand tease from LeBron, setting up the biggest letdown yet and further emboldening his critics.
But LeBron is coming off a Game 6 that should have emboldened him, while the Celtics' highlight was a stirring, prolonged "Let's Go Celtics!" chant with three minutes left and the deficit hovering around 20. But even that cool organic salute was bittersweet and uncertain, for even those cheering could not be sure whether they were sending their flawed, admirable team off on a victorious trip, or bidding farewell in case the Big Four had just played their final game together on the parquet. Only Game 7 will tell.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.