NBA Playoffs: LeBron Pulls A 45 & Guns Down Celtics

LeBron James gave one of the great playoff performances of his career—or anyone’s career for that matter—last night in Boston Garden, as the Miami Heat beat the Boston Celtics 98-79 and set up a decisive seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals back in South Beach on Saturday night. James dropped 45 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and ensured the Heat had the game in control from the outset.

On the other side, the Celtics couldn’t get anything to fall. They shot 1-for-14 from three-point range, both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett seemed to clang everything off the rim—and the numbers that show a combined 10-for-32 for the two stars bear that out. And when you consider just how many of Garnett’s shots are from close range, that stat becomes even worse than meets the eye.

For their part, Miami can’t be entirely pleased with its own supporting cast. While the team shot 48 percent from the floor, the three role playing starters (Shane Battier, Mario Challmes, Udonis Haslem), along with Chris Bosh off the bench combined to shoot 11-for-27, while Dwayne Wade struggled to a 6-for-17 night. If at any point, James would have been merely great instead of in another world, the Heat would have had problems. In fact, had the Celtics been able to play cohesive offensive basketball and hit their shots this would have been anyone’s game regardless of James’ heroics. When you consider all the great players on the floor last night, along with the magnitude of the game, it seems more than a little odd that James would be the only one to even play well, much less doing what he did.

So what are we to make of King James’ re-emergence? I have mixed feelings on the topic. Regular readers of TheSportsNotebook’s NBA playoff coverage know that at various times I’ve alluded to the fact I think a lot of the criticism over taking and making game-ending shots is overblown and that LeBron’s willingness to give up the ball should compare favorably with Kobe Bryant’s insistence on shooting regardless of how many defenders are draped on him. I agree with the comments of ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy last night who wants to know why we casually accept the idea that an unreasonable media culture’s definition of success be given credence over an objective evaluation of James’ game.

We can further add that it wasn’t though last night was a revelation when it comes to James performing in big moments. He had has “48 Special” night against Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, where he not only scored 48 points, he scored 24 in a row. In two previous elimination games in the Boston Garden he came up big—a 45-point game in Game 7 of the ’08 second round and he had a big night in Game 6 of the ’10 second round. The fact Cleveland lost both games is an indictment of the supporting cast, not the player who nearly pushed them over the top.

But there’s a flip side to this. While it’s not James’ fault, he is compared too casually to Michael Jordan and that’s where some of the obsessive focus on the failings he does have gain merit. LeBron might not have the right balance for end-game situations—the sense of when to pass and when to shoot. Neither did a host of outstanding players. Jordan did. He won the 1997 Finals by dishing to Steve Kerr for a three-point shot and then won the ’98 Finals with a magical score-steal-score sequence all by himself. Jordan was an extraordinary clutch player, the likes of which the league will not see again. At the very least, we should be waiting until the end of a player’s career to see if he compares favorably to Jordan, not throwing out casual comparisons midway through. Since I don’t buy the comparisons, I’m inclined to judge James by what I consider more reasonable measures. For those that do buy the comparisons, then the shortcomings look more obvious.

Wherever you stand on LeBron, there’s surely agreement that this epic game only bought him 48 hours breathing room. There’s no excuse for Miami not to win Game 7 at home. As a Celtics fan, I’ve known and remarked all along, that the hard part of this series is knowing that at some level it’s out of our hands. Miami has the better overall team and the best overall player. At least the last part of that equation was painfully evident on the parquet floor Friday night.