This was the Heat team that has spent the past two seasons living with the heaviest burden in all of American sports, the relentless pressure of utmost expectations — much of it self-imposed — as well as the ill wishes of a nation eager to revel in Miami’s failure.
This was the player, LeBron James, who more than anyone has dealt with the bitter brunt of all that.
And this was the night and the place that this team and this player would rise above it all or be crushed.
Well, the cream rose.
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And with it, the dream.
In a basketball arena that was a cauldron of hatred toward James on Thursday night, the NBA’s MVP was big enough and strong enough to lift a city 1,500 miles away, and to carry his team all the way back home — still alive, still chasing a championship.
“We’re not going to celebrate this win,” James said afterward. “It’s a one-game series now.”
That would be Game 7 in Miami Saturday night, with the winner advancing to the NBA Finals to face Oklahoma City.
James would score 45 points Thursday — 30 in an almost surreally dominant first half — in the season-saving 98-79 triumph over the Boston Celtics that muted a torrent of vitriol. For a night, he was King James by decree more than just nickname. At one point, as the Celtics called a timeout to stem his assault, James stood and stared stone-faced up into the angry noise, betraying no emotion.
For a long time, he just stared, drinking it in, like water, or oxygen. And he wasn’t blinking. Not right then. Not on this night.
After the game James sat in the visitor’s cramped locker room with both feet in an ice bucket and both knees bound by basketball-sized ice wraps. He ate a banana, that same neutral gaze upon his face.
He had earned the rest.
James’ points came on sharp 19-for-26 shooting, and he added 14 rebounds, the punctuation (thus far) on the most extraordinary individual season Miami has witnessed from one of its sports stars since Dan Marino’s record-setting 1984 for the Dolphins.
If “outstanding” is the sum of pressure times performance, James’ in-the-clutch Game 6 Thursday earned a piece of South Florida sports history. It was one of the most enormous shows I have witnessed in half a lifetime doing this, by a player who is the best on earth at what he does.
“He was fearless tonight, and it was contagious,” said coach Erik Spoelstra of James.
Marino never did taste a championship in Miami, of course.
James still might, thanks to, well, thanks to himself.
Now all the Heat has to do is do it again in Saturday’s Game 7 back home. And then keep doing it in the NBA Finals. That’s all.
This is the team that is not allowed to fail, led by the player who isn’t allowed to, either.
“We’re a no-excuse team,” Spoelstra likes to say.
None asked. None abided.
James deflected credit afterward, saying, “This was a gut-check for us. We finally played a complete, 48-minuite game together.”
The night was LeBron’s, though. Dwyane Wade had the best seat in the house.
“Yes,” said Wade flatly when asked if this was the best he has seen James play. “He was locked in like I’ve never seen. We just gave him the ball and got out the way. You didn’t have to tell him [it was his night]. This is not last year.”
Before this game that meant everything, in his typically grand, New Age eloquence, Spoelstra said of his team, “I love the group that we have. I really do. I love looking in their eyes and seeing what’s looking back at me. They love these moments.”
He’d better continue to like what he’s seeing, in the eyes and on the court. And he’d better hope he’s seeing more than just James scoring, because what’s somewhat disconcerting for a Heat fan is to think it takes an epic, highlight-reel show from LeBron every night to give Miami a chance.
Thursday night marked new life but felt as much like a stay of execution for the Heat here in the city that is the mecca of pro basketball — a hostile place where Miami has lost seven of eight previous games including four straight in the two-year-old Big 3 era of James, Wade and Chris Bosh.
For this Heat team — this team alone — the cries of “Failure!” and the calls for change await elimination, whenever that might be, with nothing short of a championship parade able to satisfy.
Last season fell just short. This one had better not. The burden is accepted, and James attacked it Thursday night as if the responsibility was his alone.
Wade had zero points in the first quarter and would finish with only 17 on 6-for-17 shooting, his slow starts and spotty play continuing as a troubling postseason trend in the face of frequent double-teaming defense. Bosh, off the bench in only his second game back from injury, scored a modest seven as no other Miamian reached double figures.
“You really rise to the occasion when the pressure is there,” Bosh had said, before the game, of his team.
That was to be determined, though. After falling short in last season’s championship round, and after a humbling, stunning three straight losses to Boston in this series before Thursday, that was in doubt, indeed, as anxiety steamed across South Florida like humidity.
Miami’s emptying bandwagon over the previous three losses provided the Heat a chip that fueled the team. As Spoelstra put it, “No one likes to get dirt thrown on your face before you’re even dead.”
I’m still not quite certain if the Heat rose to the occasion Thursday night or if LeBron James simply did to such a degree a team followed in his massive wake.
I’m also not sure, either, if Miami can win a championship (or even Saturday’s Game 7) without more help for James from the likes of Wade.
No matter for now, though.
A season lives, because one man made it so.
NBA Finals to face Oklahoma City.