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LeBron James went off in a big way in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics.BOSTON -- The Celtics probably knew it was coming, perhaps were even braced for it. But even as a truly dominating 45-point effort -- on a blistering 19-of-26 shooting -- was unfolding from LeBron James in Miami's pivotal 98-79 triumph in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Boston players found themselves consistently back on their heels, reacting instead of forcing a reaction, reeling as they searched for an answer for James' unstoppable performance.
It was a tremendous game from a tremendous player, and the Celtics were willing to acknowledge that. But this group, so prideful in its defense, will never sell itself that short. As good as James was offensively -- hitting shots from virtually everywhere, including a number of difficult midrange jump shots -- the Celtics knew they were the ones that should have been better defensively.
"He made some fantastic shots," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I don't think we played him with a lot of force, though, honestly. Listen, he made great shots. But we can play better defense."
Added Rivers: "I wasn't really OK with those dunks at the basket and things like that. Some of the turnaround jump shots, we've been living with that and we're going to continue to live with that. But he made a lot of tough ones. But I still didn't think we guarded him with the force that we have to guard LeBron. I thought he brought it to us, and we never gave it back. Maybe that's a better way of explaining it."
Credit James for taking the initiative, not waiting for the likes of Paul Pierce and Mickael Pietrus to body him up and bump him off of his spots. Instead, he didn't give them the chance, often spinning off of one point on the floor and fading for a difficult jumper that he made look far too easy.
"It's a great feeling to be in when you feel like everything you put up is going in," said James. "But you just can't -- you can never let go. You can never let it die down or anything like that. You know you have to continue to put pressure on their defense, and I was able to do that."
On numerous occasions it was James taking advantage of the Celtics' scrambling, transition defense that opened up opportunities for him on offense. More than once he brought the ball up the floor only to be picked up by the 6-foot-1 Rajon Rondo, whose defense is certainly pesky enough but not sustainable on someone like James when he heads for the rim or backs his way into the paint.
"During the game, the game's going so fast, man," said Kevin Garnett. "[James is] getting the ball off the [defensive] boards and he's running it, playing like a point-forward if you will, so whoever is on him, he's coming full speed, he's putting the refs in a position to calls fouls. And then when he has the jump shot going, multiple moves, so on and so on, it makes it difficult to guard. I'm sure we'll make some adjustments tomorrow and be ready."
Paul Pierce acknowledged afterward that Boston was never considering double-teaming James at any point -- a strategy they rarely employ against any opponent. They were instead counting on James to miss the midrange jumpers with the regularity he displayed throughout much of the series. And while his surprise jump-shooting prowess in Game 6 might not have been on par with Rondo's marksmanship in Game 2 of this series, the Celtics were ultimately willing to live or die by James' shooting hand.
"He hit a lot of shots that he hasn't really been making all series, a lot of fadeaways from the elbow," said Pierce. "We'll live with that. Sometimes superstars get hot. I've had that feeling before and sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. I look at a lot of the shots he took, they were contested, a lot of them. He just knocked them down."
The Celtics have to consider that a similar performance from James in Saturday's Game 7 isn't out of the question. But maybe this time, instead of being the ones reacting, they'll force James to have to react to them.