The series comeback complete, LeBron James turned to Dwyane Wade and gave his teammate a hug. Around them an arena shook with excitement but their faces bared no emotion.
For them, there was nothing to celebrate. There was only more focus.
The Heat defeated the Celtics 101-88 on Saturday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. After trailing Boston 3-2 in the best-of-7 series, Miami won two consecutive games to earn its second East championship in a row.
Now it’s onto Oklahoma City and the NBA Finals where the Heat hopes to silence the ghosts from last year’s collapse to the Dallas Mavericks.
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“It has been a journey,” LeBron James said.
The Heat/Thunder series begins on Tuesday in Oklahoma City where Game 1 and 2 will be played; tickets for Games 3 and 4 back in Miami go on sale at noon Sunday at Heat.com and Ticketmaster.
In the end Saturday night, the AmericanAirlines Arena was on its feet and buzzing with the energy of a final series game fitting of its pressure-packed, do-or-die scenario. James played every minute of the game, finishing with 31 points, 12 rebounds and two assists. Dwyane Wade had 23 points, six assists and six rebounds.
“You play to get back to this moment to, in a sense, redeem yourself,” Wade said.
Chris Bosh, who missed nine straight games after injuring an abdominal muscle in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, announced his full return to health with an emphatic 19 points. He was 3 of 4 from three-point range. Bosh’s three three-pointers set a career high for a game.
“I know it will surprise a lot of other people, but I’ve been practicing those things all year,” Bosh said. “We kind of knew in big-time situations that they were going to be open and I’d shoot it without hesitation.”
The Heat’s role players delivered as well. Shane Battier delivered 12 points on four three-pointers. Mario Chalmers had nine points and seven assists. Udonis Haslem had seven points and six rebounds. The Heat out-rebounded Boston 38-33 and overcame 10 turnovers in the first half by committing just three in the final two quarters.
The final game of the series was etched from the same DNA as the entire back-and-forth affair. For one maddening stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters — nine minutes and 46 seconds to be exact — the lead changed hands 14 times. For 46 consecutive possessions, neither team led by more than two points.
“I guess that’s what a seven-game Eastern Conference finals series is supposed to be about,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It was good to see us come together in a very competitive series.”
Fans cheered respectfully as the Celtics’ starters checked out of the game with 28.3 seconds left, conceding victory. It was perhaps the final game for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in Celtics green. If so, it was a memorable conclusion to an amazing run. Paul Pierce gave the Celtics 19 points on 7 of 18 shooting. Garnett had 14 points and seven rebounds.
“It’s been a privilege,” said Allen, who finished with 15 points and was 3 of 8 from three-point range.
Rajon Rondo led Boston with 22 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, yet another playoff triple-double for the point guard.
“We let this one slip away,” Rondo said. “They made the 50-50 plays and got to loose balls.”
A three-point play by James with nine minutes left in the game gave the Heat a brief lead. James, aggressive throughout the game, drove into the jaws of the Celtics’ defense once again to put the Heat ahead. His and-one free throw gave the Heat an 82-81 lead. James was 12 of 17 from the free-throw line.
Moments later Ray Allen bombed a three-pointer from the corner to swing the score back in the Celtics favor.
Like a metronome, the lead seemed to change with every possession the final period. It was basketball at its symphonic best, every player in tune with the moment and performing like masters in Carnegie Hall.
James answered Allen’s three-pointer with a Statue of Liberty dunk that seemed to shake AmericanAirlines Arena to its core. The Heat led 83-82 with eight minutes to play. Amazingly, the lead changed sides eight times in the first four minutes of the period.
Bosh put the Heat ahead by four points with a three-pointer with 7:18 to play. He had two three-pointers in the fourth quarter.
“Game ball automatically goes to [Bosh],” James said. “Without him we don’t win.”
This was not the Heat’s players executing to a game-plan to perfection. No, it was superstars being superstars. Miami’s Big 3 scored the Heat’s final 31 points of the game.
James answer Allen’s three-pointer with his first three-pointer of the game, stroking a cold-blooded shot from the elbow to give the Heat a 91-84 lead. Then, more Bosh.
His hook shot put the Heat ahead by seven points with four minutes to go and moments later he intercepted a lob pass by Rondo. Wade converted to give the Heat a 95-86 advantage.
He wasn’t done. Now it was his turn to lace the building with magic. A three-point play gave Heat a 98-86 lead with 2:53 to play and the celebration began.
The Heat trailed 53-46 to begin the third quarter but, led by Battier, Miami quickly close the gap. Battier drilled a pair of three-pointers in the quarter’s first four minutes, including a three-pointer from the corner that cut Boston’s lead to 59-57. Less than a minute later, Wade tied the game with a 20-footer and the arena exploded. Boston called timeout and Udonis Haslem swung his arms in the arm to keep the crowd going.
Wade swished a 20-footer with 5:46 left in the third to give the Heat its first lead since the first period. From there, the lead changed six times in the final six minutes of the quarter.
It was a sloppy first half for the Heat considering the huge stakes. James, Wade, Chalmers and Bosh each had two turnovers in the first half. In all, the Celtics scored 14 points off 10 Heat turnovers in the first two periods.