NBA Playoffs: James, Wade defeat Celtics, their demons

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In the summer of 2007, a former league MVP and a perennial All-Star joined a franchise player to form a group that, when healthy, dominated the NBA’s Eastern Conference and kept its two best players from reaching an NBA Finals. They took out LeBron James’ Cavaliers in 2008 in an amazing seven-game series that culminated in a duel for the ages between James and Paul Pierce. In 2010, they sent Dwyane Wade home, despite Wade doing everything humanly possible to keep his hopelessly over-matched team alive. In those same playoffs, they humilated and eliminated LeBron James, setting in motion a chain of events that led to LeBron leaving Cleveland.

Three years later, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, along with Chris Bosh teamed up, hoping to do to the Celtics what the Celtics had been able to do to them. On Wednesday night, they achieved that goal, beating the Celtics 97-87 and advancing to the Conference Finals.

Game 5 wasn’t simply a matchup of two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference — it was the culmination of what had become a personal mission for James and Wade. The game played out accordingly.

The best version of the Heat did not show up in Game 5. They failed to move the ball, Joel Anthony’s foul trouble kept them from putting the kind of defensive pressure on Boston that they wanted to, and they failed to create looks for their spot up-shooters outside or big men inside.

However, the best versions of Wade and James did show up, and the Heat are now moving on to the Conference Finals. Wade was masterful throughout the game, especially in the first half. He slithered through traps, attacked the rim with abandon, hit his mid-range jumpers, and kept the Boston defense completely befuddled throughout the game. Just like they did in Game 4, the Heat spent most of the game down by two or three possessions, but Wade kept them in the game through his sheer brilliance.

For his part, James started the game slowly. His drives to the rim failed to yield positive results, and his usually-crisp passing was off the mark all night long. But he more than made up for it with his outside shooting, especially late in the game. James got himself going with some long jumpers in the third quarter, and that set up one of the best clutch performances of his career late in the fourth quarter.

With Boston up five and just under four minutes left to play, Kevin Garnett missed a mid-range jumper that probably would have put the game away for Boston. It caromed harmlessly off the rim, and LeBron found James Jones for an open three in transition that cut the Boston lead to two. After a Chris Bosh dunk and a missed Paul Pierce layup, the score was tied with just over two minutes to play, the ball found itself in LeBron’s hands with time winding down off the shot clock. James then calmly drained a clutch three directly in Paul Pierce’s face. Just over a minute later, he dribbled down the clock and hit another one to put the Heat up by six, then stole the ensuing Celtic inbound pass and dunked it to seal the game and the series for the Heat.

It was the perfect way for the Heat to end the conference semifinals. They beat the Celtics by hanging tough all game, wearing them down, and out-executing them in crunch time, which was supposed to be Boston’s MO. The player who supposedly couldn’t make a clutch shot all season long tore out Boston’s heart down the stretch for the second time in as many games — the two biggest games of the Heat’s season.

Tonight will be Miami’s night. They beat the team they were built to beat, and they did it by overcoming their one Achilles’ heel throughout the regular season — their ability to close out tight games against good teams. For tonight, the Heat have answered all the questions that were asked of them all season long. The last two defending champions, the ones who were supposed to punish the Heat for their audacity during the off-season, are out of the picture. And the Heat remain, on top of the league. For tonight.

Tomorrow, reality will set in. Unless Atlanta can win two games in a row against Chicago (I mean, never say never, but…), the Heat have a date with the team with the best regular-season record in the league, a defense even better than Boston’s, and a player better and more explosive than anybody on the Celtic roster. And if they want to get to the finals, they’ll have to win at least one game in Chicago, thanks to the fact they let all three of their games against the Bulls slip through their fingers in the regular season.

The Heat accomplished a huge feat on Wednesday night, and James and Wade now have the Boston monkey off their backs. But they’re still only halfway to their ultimate goal, the one goal they need to achieve to justify their hype, and they’ll have to pass tests that could well be tougher than the ones they’ve faced to achieve it. The Heat should savor this night. Because rest assured, if the Heat come up short against Chicago or fail to win the Finals, it won’t be remembered for long.