LeBron James scored 45 points as the Heat prevented a Garden party and won Game 6, 98-79, to force the Eastern Conference Finals back to Miami.
“Now we have a series,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “That’s what everybody wants, right?”
James picked apart the Celtics with deadly accuracy and a killer instinct, hitting 19 of 26 shots from the floor. With the high point total, his 15 rebounds and 5 assists always seemed like an afterthought.
“He set the tone for their whole team,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I thought he gave them comfort in every way he played tonight.”
James stepped up big for the Heat when their season was on the line and they needed him most. He played 44 minutes, sitting down only when the game was already in hand.
“I think what fuels him is this moment,” said Spoelstra. “He was absolutely fearless tonight. And it was contagious. The way he approached the last 48 hours. Not only LeBron, it wasn’t the end of the world. Nobody likes getting dirt thrown on your face before you’re dead.”
James was the biggest problem for the Celtics, but their issues didn’t end with the Heat superstar. The Celtics were turnover-happy (nine) in the first half. Paul Pierce was 4 of 18 from the floor in the game. The Boston bench contributed just 2 points — a tip-in by Mickael Pietrus — until garbage time, when the Celtics were down by so much that their bench had been emptied.
Rajon Rondo was also a disappointment, and that might seem contradictory given his 21 points and 10 assists. But this wasn’t the kind of dominant performance we’ve come to expect from Rondo in the playoffs. He countered those 10 assists with seven turnovers, an issue front and center in the Celtics’ offensive troubles to start the game.
“We have to get to the second and third option, and sometimes the fourth option,” said Ray Allen.
Rivers had been waiting all series for his team to turn in a complete performance from start to finish; he knew after the first quarter that Thursday night wasn’t going to be it. The Celtics came out flat in Game 6, making 41 percent of their field goals in the first quarter. A more disturbing statistic was Boston’s five team turnovers to just one assist. James scored 14 points in the first quarter as Miami went on a 10-0 run after Kevin Garnett went to the bench.
James continue to put up points in the second quarter, and he was joined in a duel of sorts by Rondo. James had 30 points by halftime to Rondo’s 19, but Rondo wasn’t perfect despite his scoring, countering five assists with five turnovers.
Getting 20 points and 10 rebounds from Garnett has seemed like a given in these playoffs, but Garnett finished with 12 points and five rebounds in the loss. Dwyane Wade had 17 points for Miami in support of James.
The Celtics and Heat will now play one game, Saturday night in Miami (8:30 p.m.) for a chance to advance to the NBA Finals to face the Oklahoma City Thunder. That series begins Tuesday.
“I would say that most of the people in this room, if you said, ‘Wow, they’re going to get to a Game 7?’ we’d take it,” said Rivers. “That’s the way we have to view it. Now we get to play for all the marbles.
“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 plan to do it.”
Final: Heat 98, Celtics 79
3:11 4th quarter, Heat 92-70: The crowd starting to file out here. Absolutely no drama to this game. After such a great series to this point, it’s disappointing.
7:43 4th quarter, Heat 87-64: Both the Celtics and the home crowd seem resigned to a Game 7.
10:18 4th quarter, Heat 81-63: Miami starts the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run. Going to be tough now.
End 3d quarter, Heat 74-61: LeBron James has 41 points through three quarters. His career high is 56.
2:09 3d quarter, Heat 72-61: Just when you think the Celtics are cooked, they find inspiration somewhere. Rondo is up to 10 assists, while Brandon Bass has 12 points and 6 rebounds. Pierce (3 for 14, 0 for 5 on 3-pointers) is having a miserable game.
A technical foul by James is the only thing he’s done wrong tonight. He’s got 39 points and 9 rebounds.
5:17 3d quarter, Heat 67-52: Celtics are desperate. They go super small, with Brandon Bass at the five, even though Bosh and Haslem are both in the game.
8:36 3d quarter, Heat 60-48: Big momentum dunk for Brandon Bass on the follow cuts the lead to 12. Those are the kind of plays that will get the Celtics back into this game.
10:09 3d quarter, Heat 59-42: Pierce is trying to get his points, but he hasn’t found the net. James continues to score.
Halftime, Heat 55-42: Just as we expected, a scoring duel has materialized between LeBron James and … Rajon Rondo? James has only missed one shot (11 of 12) and has 30 points. Rondo has 19 points, but his five turnovers are symptomatic of what’s ailing the Celtics. Their ball movement is terrible.
1:48 2d quarter, Heat 49-38: Chalmers fouls Rondo, who falls hard to the floor near midcourt. Rondo stays down for a moment, then does so pushups on his knuckles before getting up, just like KG did the other night.
2:58 2d quarter, Heat 45-35: Crucial stretch coming before halftime. Celtics need to keep this lead manageable.
5:40 2d quarter, Celtics 40-29: Pierce just picked up his third personal foul. That’s really not good.
5:56 2d half, Heat 40-29: Brandon Bass gets a shot to go and-one after six bounces on the rim. Meanwhile, James is torching the Celtics with 22 points.
8:30 2d quarter, Heat 36-23: As Doc Rivers expected, Haslem and Bosh both on the floor for Miami. In a bit of a role reversal, it was Bosh who kept a play going with an offensive rebound and found Haslem for a jumper.
9:35 2d quarter, Celtics 30-23: Keyon Dooling has been a spark plug. Dooling cut down the lane and took a feed from the wing, then swung the ball to a wide open Ray Allen in the corner for a 3-pointer. Great look.
End 1st quarter, Heat 26-16: Doc Rivers has been waiting for his team to play that complete game, and he’s going to have to wait a little longer. Celtics come out flat in the first quarter, shooting 41 percent with five turnovers and one assist. LeBron James leads all scorers with 14 points.
2:28 1st quarter, Heat 22-14: Things haven’t looked good for the Celtics, but Rondo hits a tough layup to give the crowd some life. James already has 12 points. The Celtics as a team have four turnovers to one assist. The Heat went on a 10-0 run with Garnett of the floor.
3:29 1st quarter, Heat 16-12: Chris Bosh is in the game, matched up with Greg Stiemsma. Bosh got free underneath for his first two points of the game.
5:29 1st quarter, Heat 12-8: Personal and technical foul charged to Mario Chalmers, who was in a battle with Ray Allen on the block. Allen was trying to post up, and both players were exchanging extracurriculars. Chalmers got in Ray’s face, and boom. T.
6:18 1st quarter, Heat 10-8: Stiemsma in for KG. Dwyane Wade really hasn’t made Ray Allen work as hard as he could on defense. Content to shoot jumpers.
8:48 1st quarter, Heat 8-4: James drives down the lane for a dunk. Rondo has yet to record an assist and has a turnover.
On Miami’s first possession Kevin Gartnett wasn’t even guarding Udonis Haslem, went to help on Wade instead.
Pregame: Udonis Haslem will start at center for the Heat, which means Chris Bosh will come off the bench, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he has prepared for a lineup in which Miami uses Bosh and Haslem at the same time. Game 6 is starting soon. Nothing left to say. Let’s get it.