BROOKLYN -- For two days, the story was that Paul Pierce asked to guard LeBron James. The implication was that Pierce's noble gesture was both a rallying cry and an act of defiance for a Brooklyn team that needed a jolt of leadership and some good old veteran moxie. Pierce being Pierce, he had a few things to say to LeBron during and after the game, which James brushed aside in his usual way.
"You guys should know Paul by now, man," James said on the off day. "It's not how I play the game. I don't play the game by getting into words. It's about trying to win a series. It's not about what Paul has to say. I really don't care what Paul has to say."
So, the stage was set for one more epic confrontation between James and his aging tormentors from Boston. Pierce and Kevin Garnett are not the same players they once were. In Garnett's case, his decline has been more rapid and jarring. They are, however, still capable of pushing James to great heights, and it was no accident that the pregame video in Miami's locker room was a replay of the Heat's Game 4 win in Boston during the 2011 playoffs after they had lost the third game.
As he did in 2011 and more dramatically in 2012, LeBron responded with a performance that was as dominant as it was inevitable. Not content to let the game come to him or his struggling teammates, James hoisted the Heat on his back and dragged them through yet another postseason crucible. Forty-nine points later, Miami had a 102-96 win and a 3-1 series lead.
"I felt the need that we needed to win this game," James said after matching his playoff career-high with 49 points." Whatever I had to do to help us win, it needed to be done."
That included getting Pierce into early foul trouble, relentlessly attacking the Nets off the dribble and bulldozing his way through their defense en route to 19 free throws. He did not hang back on the perimeter and ease into the contest. He also did not make much of an effort to get the other guys involved until the situation demanded it.
"He's tough, especially with his speed," Pierce said. "When he ducks his head and tries to go to the basket it really took away a lot of my aggressiveness when I picked up two fouls. He realized that and he kept going to the hole. At the end of the day he's tough to guard one-on-one. You got to try and slow him down. You've got to send multiple guys and make him kick the ball and we didn't do that."
He didn't even take his normal rest at the start of the fourth quarter. That conversation with Erik Spoelstra was short and graphic.
"He asked me and I didn't know if he was serious or not," James said. "What I told him, I cannot say again. I wanted to finish out the game. I felt like this was a must-win for us."
That's an odd position to be in for a team that was holding a 2-1 lead with homecourt advantage still intact, but James knows as well as anyone that there is no time to waste on this playoff chase. The Heat are not as deep as they've been in past years, and perhaps not as solid either.
Shane Battier again provided little in his 13 minutes. and neither did Rashard Lewis. This is not a series for Udonis Haslem, so Spoelstra called on James Jones, the little-used veteran shooter whom LeBron subtlety lobbied for on the off day. That trio played almost 39 minutes and scored all of two points. Dwyane Wade had a quiet 15 and got to the free throw line just twice. Mario Chalmers had foul trouble. Chris Bosh had only six points coming into the fourth quarter.
This was all on LeBron, and with the Nets throwing everything they had at them, the fourth quarter had the kind of tension normally associated with a close-out game. In a sense it was because it's hard to imagine the Nets, no matter how many problems they give Miami, being able to win three straight games in this series.
This was their shot at putting up more than just a valiant effort and it devolved in a series of isolation plays and home run threes, rather than the patient ball movement approach that had brought them to this point. Down the stretch, the Nets insisted on reverting back to ISO-Joe and put the ball in Joe Johnson's hands with LeBron guarding him with five fouls.
"I wasn't necessarily trying to draw the foul on him, but I thought he was aggressive so I was just trying to use his aggressiveness against him," Johnson said. "He flopped that last one."
LeBron brushed off that charge, as well.
"I believe in a one-on-one situation I can stop anyone from scoring," he said. "It doesn't happen like that all the time. Guys make shots. I tried to put pressure on him to make him a tough one and he missed one. He missed two of them."
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
Before we get to the shot that broke the stalemate, we have to go back briefly to before the game to something Spoelstra said about his superstar. "He's a sharp mind. We all know that. He does have recall. The great players tend to have a more advanced mind for the game."
So, with the game tied at 94 and possession after possession ending in missed jumpers, James went back to the trait that has served him the best during his career. He is hardwired to make the correct basketball play. In the past that has served to undermine him. When the world demanded that he be like Mike, he preferred to act like Magic.
"People always talk about my basketball IQ," James said. "I don't really talk about it as much. I see a lot going on in a game, I'm not sure everyone sees. I'm happy to give it to my teammates because it benefits us."
James came off a high pick-and-roll with Wade and immediately knew that the Nets botched the coverage, which allowed Wade to get James the ball in the middle of the court going to the basket. That's when he saw Garnett rotate over and leave Bosh in the corner.
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"I knew exactly what was about to happen," James said. "As soon as I saw KG rotate to me, I spun in the paint, threw it to [Mario Chalmers] and already knew it was going to find CB. As soon as it got to Rio, I knew it was going to be good for CB."
Someone asked James if it was hard to do that. After all, he had carried them to this point and by all rights the game was his to decide.
"It's not hard at all," James answered. "I make the right play, every single time, make or miss. A couple of times before that, CB missed back-to-back 3's, off my passes. That doesn't mean it's not the right play. That doesn't matter to me. You draw two (defenders) that means you got a 4-on-3 on the backside. I drew two and we had a 2-on-1 on the backside and Rio sung it to CB in the corner. It's a numbers game. You live by it, you make the right play and you live by the results of it."
It's so simple when you break the game down to its essence and understand it as well as James does combined with the physical ability to make anything at all happen on a basketball court. Ultimately this game came down to a simple fact of life: the Heat had LeBron and he wasn't going to let them lose.
"He's a great player," Pierce said. "You can't take nothing away from him. He stepped up when his team needed him."