1. Methodical LeBron Rises To The Occasion
BOSTON -- No one saw this coming.
They all knew it was within him, everyone from his most diligent fans to those who can't help but picture him in that checkered shirt uttering "South Beach" every time they tune in. That, after all, is why everyone watches, because of what is within that talent's reach.
His draw is for the spectrum of possibility: Will he choke and be mocked or achieve and be marveled at? It's that mystery that creates the drama fans have become addicted to in May and June for years now. Even when he's unremarkable, when his production is average and his play undistinguished, there's a yearning to yank it one direction or the other.
Still, no one saw it coming quite like this. Not James' 45 points, not his 15 rebounds, not his 19 made shots on 26 attempts, not even the emotionless dark stare from a player known for being so expressive that it qualifies as a turnoff for some.
"I'm not a fortune teller," Dwyane Wade said. "I didn't see it coming."
No one of sound or rational mind would have predicted James to have one of the greatest games of his career at TD Garden, the graveyard of his seasons past, in an elimination game against his most bitter rival. Maybe the Heat hoped for it, and they certainly needed it against a Celtics team that by any measure had outperformed them for most of this Eastern Conference finals. But no way was it foreseen.
James has scored more points in playoff games, he's shown more brute strength, he's pulled off bigger long shots, he's even had a 45-point elimination-game effort in Boston before. But never had he played quite like this, executing without flair and with what almost felt like absence of joy that just added to the surreal feeling. No special pregame meal, no special text message, no new brand of deodorant.
Shot after shot just went through the net. Catch, turn, make. Face up, square, make. Different defenders, different schemes, different plays.
"I just went to my habits," James explained. "I wasn't going to feel sorry for myself or anything. I just go out and play as hard as I can and try to make plays for our team. And at the end of the day, whatever happens happens."
James has said virtually the same thing after losses this postseason, part of his regimen to tone himself down. He's been going to bed early, not even staying up to watch the Western Conference finals, if you believe him. He's been reading books, just polishing off the "Hunger Games" trilogy. He's been mostly ignoring his cell phones. He hasn't even sent out a tweet in six weeks. It's clearly part of some centering plan to eliminate the emotions that have sometimes overcome him when the pressure has arrived in the past few years.
But even if these altered lifestyle decisions are truly doing the trick, it still doesn't account for Game 6. Even for a guy averaging 31 points in the first five games of the series, it felt like it came from nowhere; it was just so all-encompassing and yet so under control.
In the other comparable performances -- his 49 points in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals in Detroit, his 45 points in Game 7 of the conference semifinals in a loss to the Celtics in 2008, his triple-double in an elimination game his Cavs won in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals -- James had to use so much energy, force and will. This game, he did it with so much economy that it was numbing.
"LeBron, he had a game," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "He had a game."
Instantly, the question is, can it be done again? The Celtics had somewhat dared James to do it in the first place. They evaluated the situation early in the series and decided to pick on Wade, throwing double-teams at him and watching his production dip, believing the Heat did not have the firepower to make up for it. James' efforts just stayed the same -- 30 points and 10 rebounds a night, thank you -- but the Heat have had problems covering the Wade shortfall.
Even Thursday night, the Celtics valiantly stuck to their game plan as James kept making baskets -- 12 of his first 13 tries, in fact, they stayed with the double-teams on Wade. But their belief that James would tire or have a change in luck or get drunk on the hot streak didn't come home. Not even the Celtics, playing with fire, as they knew they were, could have foreseen it.
"I thought he gave them comfort in the way he played," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I hope now you guys will stop talking about LeBron and that he doesn't play in big games. He was pretty good tonight. Now that's to bed. We can go ahead and play Game 7."
Not a chance. James gave up the luxury of enjoying periodic greatness years ago. His margin for success is so small because he's made it that way with performances like this one. The better James plays, the greater the demand for him to do it more. It's the paradox he has lived in for as long as he can remember.
But all that is for consideration later. Now James' magical night in Boston didn't just kept him from having to end a season here for the third time in four years, it set up a massive game on Saturday in which the Heat just might need him to do it again.
Can he do it again? Who's to say? But, whoa, will it be fascinating to watch him try.
"I won't regret Game 7," James said. "Win, lose or draw, I'm going to go in with the mindset like I've had this whole season. And we'll see what happens."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Facing elimination, and under a degree of scrutiny that would make heads of state lose sleep, LeBron James -- pariah, coward, choker -- submitted this: 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists. To say he was a man among boys in Game 6 doesn't quite capture the extent of his dominance. It was more like watching a man race a sloth or debate a horse. Nobody else had a chance.
LVP: Paul Pierce. While the Heat were, strictly speaking, the only team facing elimination on Thursday, the Celtics are the one with the clock ticking on a whole era of basketball. But with a chance to send the aging core to what would likely have been their final Finals together, the longest-tenured Celtic missed 14 of his 18 shots, managed just eight points and turned it over three times against a single assist.
That was ... grace under pressure. When scientists discovered the halicephalobus mephisto last summer -- a 0.5 mm worm that lives more than 2 miles below the earth's surface -- it forced a serious shift in their thinking on the level of pressure and heat a living thing can withstand. After LeBron James' night -- with the eyes and the ire of the sporting world fixed squarely on him -- they might have to do another revision.
3. Thursday's Best
LeBron James, Heat: All business, all the time, except for one friendly, midgame tap on the leg to Rajon Rondo. James went 19-for-26 en route to 45 points and 15 rebounds in the do-or-die Game 6 win over Boston. Now James looks to lead the Heat to a second straight NBA Finals appearance.
4. Thursday's Worst
Paul Pierce, Celtics: Once upon a time, two stars dueled. One had 45, the other had 41. That was May 18, 2008. Well, LeBron had 45 again, but this time Pierce fell 32 points short of holding up his part of the duel of waxing and waning stars.
5. Quote Of The Night
"Nobody likes getting dirt thrown on your face before you're even dead."
-- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team is not dead yet, heading to Game 7.
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Tweet Of The Night
8. End Game
9. Stat Check
LeBron James, in a signature performance, contributed 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in the Heat's 98-79 victory at Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. It marked only the second time in NBA history a player has reached each of those levels in a playoff game. Wilt Chamberlain had 50 points, 15 rebounds and 6 assists in Game 5 of the 1964 Western Division finals, as his San Francisco Warriors defeated the St. Louis Hawks, 121-97.
The Heat's dominant 98-79 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night marked the only the third time in the past dozen postseasons that an NBA team facing elimination has won a game on the road by such a large margin -- and on all three of those occasions, the Celtics were the victims. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2009, the Magic went to Boston and routed the Celtics, 101-82; and in Game 7 of a first-round series in 2005, the Pacers whipped the Celtics in Boston, 97–70.