BOSTON – LeBron James pushed away elimination, right along with any defender who tried to stop him.
He wasn’t going to let another season end in Boston. The Eastern Conference finals, and his chase of an NBA championship, are headed back to Miami for a Game 7.
James had 45 points and 15 rebounds, overwhelming the Celtics and leading the Heat to a 98-79 victory Thursday night that forced the decisive game.
“He was absolutely fearless tonight, and it was contagious,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The way he approached the last 48 hours, and not only LeBron, but everybody else. Nobody likes getting dirt thrown on your face before you’re even dead. He showed great resolve.”
James shot 19 of 26 from the field and finished four points shy of his playoff career-high while playing 45 minutes, not sitting down until the victory was long secured.
After two days of questions about the Heat’s future and his own history, James provided his response in resounding fashion in a building where Miami had lost 15 of its previous 16 games.
“In an environment like this, you want to have a big game,” he said. “I wanted to be there for my teammates, no matter what was going on throughout the course of the game.
“This was a gut check for us, and it’s good to see we were able to bounce back after that loss, after that Game 5 loss at home.”
Dwyane Wade added 17 points for the Heat, who need a victory at home Saturday night to return to the NBA finals. If James plays like this again, Miami should have no problem getting it.
“He played amazing. He was locked in from the beginning of the game like I’ve never seen him before,” Wade said.
Rajon Rondo had 21 points and 10 assists for Boston. Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass each scored 12 points, but Paul Pierce had only nine on 4-of-18 shooting.
In the site of some of James’ biggest disappointments, the only disappointed ones Thursday were the thousands of fans who hoped to see a celebration but instead filed out of the TD Garden midway through the fourth quarter, just before the league MVP called it a night.
“He was comfortable all night,” Rondo said. “We didn’t get into his air space.”
Miami barely won Game 2 before dropping the next three games, but this one was never in doubt. James was a one-man force on what’s supposed to be a Big Three, carrying the Heat in the first half while Wade made only 1 of 6 shots.
The Celtics were hoping to complete a comeback from a 2-0 deficit, as Oklahoma City did in the Western Conference, and advance to face the Thunder in the NBA finals. But they missed 13 of 14 3-point attempts and will have to win a second straight game in Miami to play for the title.
James’ season was twice ended in Boston while playing for Cleveland, the Celtics emerging as the winner in a Pierce-James duel in Game 7 of the 2008 East semifinals, then beating the Cavs in Game 6 of the second round two years later.
That was James’ last game with Cleveland, leaving that summer for Miami and the All-Star help that Wade and Chris Bosh could provide.
He needed none of it Thursday.
He had 30 points by halftime and spent the night silencing the Celtics crowd and perhaps some of the doubters he somehow still has. He set the tone for the game by making 6 of 7 shots and scoring 14 points in the first quarter, and he made sure the Heat were never challenged from there.
“I hope now you guys can stop talking about LeBron and he doesn’t play in big games,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He was pretty good tonight. So we can put that to bed and go play Game 7.”
The Heat obviously weren’t deflated by that loss and came to fight, scoring 10 straight points to build a 10-point lead shortly after Mario Chalmers was called for a technical foul after getting mixed up with Ray Allen. They extended it to 12 points later in the period, taking a 26-16 lead into the second after shooting 58 percent in the period.
James made 12 of his first 13 shots.