Before the playoffs began last month, Coach Erik Spoelstra brought out the real 2006 trophy to stir his team’s emotions. Two weeks ago, Pat Riley, the team president and collector of championship rings, offered a different brand of inspiration, telling Spoelstra stories about Jerry West’s legendary struggles against the , the Heat’s next foe.
Spoelstra said he felt the agony as if it were his own. had felt that agony personally, too many times. Dwyane Wade, too. It was why they all were here, together: To win a title. To beat the Celtics. To vanquish old ghosts.
Catharsis came at last Wednesday night for all of them, with that knocked the Celtics out of the playoffs and catapulted the Heat to the Eastern Conference finals.
The mission that James, Wade and Chris Bosh began last July is nearing its denouement.
They closed out Boston, the defending Eastern Conference champion, with an awesome display of power, finishing with a 16-0 run over the final 4 minutes 28 seconds. When it was over, Wade and James embraced on the court, as thousands of white towels whirled above them. Then James kneeled on the court.
“Everything went through my mind at that point,” James said, “including finally getting over this hump against this team. Everything I went through this summer, with the decision and deciding to come down here and be a part of this team.”
This was a meaningful celebration, nothing like the audacious party they threw for themselves last summer after joining forces. They need eight more victories to win a title. But they have overthrown the team that lorded over them for so long.
The Celtics, James and Wade have said often, provided the blueprint by uniting Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
“They pushed us,” James said. “They pushed us every game. And every second. Every play. Every minute on the court. If we ever made a mistake, they made us pay for it.”
A year ago, the Celtics knocked the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the playoffs, pushing James to South Beach in search of better help. It seemed only appropriate that James scored the last 10 points of the game, sending the Celtics away with a 4-1 defeat that will force their own re-examination.
Pierce, Allen and Garnett, the Celtics’ Hall of Fame core, are all in their mid-30s. Coach Doc Rivers has flirted with a sabbatical, but on Wednesday said he was “leaning heavily to coming back.”
“I haven’t made that decision, but I can tell you I probably will,” Rivers said, adding: “I’m a Celtic, and I love our guys. I want to win again here.”
Shaquille O’Neal, who barely played in the postseason because of a calf injury, could retire. Limping toward the bus late Wednesday, O’Neal said it was too soon to say. As he walked, a Heat employee — clutching a 2006 championship ring — rushed up to thank O’Neal for delivering that title. It may have been his last.
The Celtics were ousted in five games for the first time since they brought Pierce, Allen and Garnett together in 2007. They won the title the next spring and made the finals again last June. If they return intact, they will be chasing a younger, quicker, sturdier Big 3.
James dominated the finale with 33 points, 23 in the second half. Wade had 34 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals. Bosh added 14 points and was Miami’s only other player in double figures. The Heat is 31-3 when those three combine for at least 75 points.
“They definitely posed a lot of challenges to us,” Allen said, “and they put a lot of pressure on our defense.”
With Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers both eliminated in the past week, both conferences will have new representatives in the finals. And the N.B.A. will have a champion other than the Celtics or Lakers for the first time since 2007.
Miami is heading to the conference finals for the fourth time in its 23-year history, and the first time since 2006. The Heat will be heavily favored in the next round, regardless of the opponent. The Chicago Bulls have a 3-2 lead over the Atlanta Hawks in the other semifinal series, with Game 6 on Thursday.
The Celtics had an 87-81 lead with under five minutes to play. It vanished under a hailstorm of turnovers and 3-pointers. James Jones started the run with a 3-pointer, and Bosh followed with a driving dunk after faking Garnett into the air. James hit a 3-pointer over Pierce for a 93-87 lead, and the white towels began to fly around the arena.
James crushed whatever hopes the Celtics still had, lunging to steal Delonte West’s pass, then racing for a breakaway dunk.
The Celtics’ veteran crew never could match the Heat’s power. Miami took 38 free throws (to Boston’s 20). Allen, Pierce and Garnett combined for just 45 points. Boston’s fourth star, Rajon Rondo, battled back and elbow pain and sat out the fourth quarter, finishing with 6 points and 3 assists.
Over the last seven months, the Heat had stumbled and regained its balance, defied expectations, forged its identity, closed the regular season in style and put away the Philadelphia 76ers in a tougher-than-expected first round.
Closing out the Celtics was a task requiring its own category.
“It took a five-and-a-half-month season to get to this point,” Spoelstra said, “to exorcise this demon for a lot of us.”