|LeBron James left Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics stunned with a 45-point performance in Game 6. (Getty Images)|
BOSTON -- A spoiled party leaves you bitter. A lost opportunity leaves you anguished. A performance that big under that amount of scrutiny leaves you transfixed. A response so limp leaves you searching.
Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers is regarded as one of the NBA's leading masters of managing emotions, of motivating stars and role players alike, of connecting to individuals in a way that inspires group success. Rivers is so respected that the coach on the opposite bench, Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat, spent a portion of his pregame media session admitting that he once sought out Rivers' counsel at a summer coaching clinic.
"He's highly regarded in his schematics and X's and O's," Spoelstra said. "I was more curious about the management of personalities. That's really ultimately what it's about in this league."
Rivers' skills get a test for the ages over the next two days. He's dealing with all of the above after the Heat waltzed out of TD Garden with a 98-79 Game 6 victory on Thursday night. There was lobster for dinner in the media room, The Jungle was on tilt and visions of a weekend off before the start of the 2012 NBA Finals danced in their heads.
|More on Heat-Celtics|
But Heat forward LeBron James took it all -- the atmosphere, the Big 3's 1-7 record at TD Garden, the two days of questions about his fourth quarter passivity in Game 5 -- and he shoved it down Boston's collective throat, over and over and over.
"Well, it was a matter of too much LeBron," Rivers said. "He was absolutely sensational. Made every shot, set the tone for their whole team. I thought he gave them comfort in the way he played tonight."
James finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in 45 minutes. He went to the bench only when victory was secure and Rivers had pulled his starters.
"I thought he brought it to us and we never gave it back," Rivers said. "I hope now you guys will stop talking about LeBron and that he doesn't play in big games. He was pretty good tonight. Now that's to bed."
James left the Celtics players bemoaning their lost close-out opportunity, he erased their Game 5 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena, he left Celtics fans crying conspiracy as they exited the building and he set the stage for what should be a fascinating Game 7 on Saturday night in Miami. Most of all, he left Rivers to pull together the pieces between now and then.
"We left a huge opportunity on the floor but we still have another opportunity," Rivers said. "We get to play another game, Game 7."
Already his mind was working, framing what might at first appear to be a letdown as a chance to do what few believed they were capable of two weeks prior when this dogfight of a series began.
"I would say most of the people in this room would have said, 'Wow, they're going to get to Game 7,' we'll take it. That's the way we have to view it. We won a game at theirs, they won here. Now we get to play for all the marbles."
The Game 7 approach for Rivers will start with selling the notion that his team simply played its worst game of the series on both ends of the court on the same night that James played his best game of the season. He can point back to Boston's three consecutive victories in the series, plus a Game 2 overtime loss, to make a compelling and accurate case to his players that they have controlled the bulk of this series.
Rivers can single out Rondo and Kevin Garnett as two players Miami has not been able to solve when they've given their "A" performances. He can go around the locker room and remind guys like Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling and Marquis Daniels that they've all given big minutes during the series. He can get in Ray Allen's ear and mention how much better he has played as the series has continued and he has continued to adjust to his bum ankle. He could play a highlight of Paul Pierce's dagger 3-pointer in LeBron James' face on Tuesday, but Pierce doesn't need that type of reminder.
He can point at Game 5 to prove it's not impossible to win at AmericanAirlines Arena. He can point to another pedestrian night for Dwyane Wade -- 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting -- as evidence that they continue to limit Miami as no one else has in the postseason. He can point out that Chris Bosh -- who played 28 minutes off the bench in his second game back from an abdominal injury -- was merely a footnote rather than a game-changer in posting a line of 7 points and 6 rebounds. He can write in bold letters, again, that the rest of Miami's bench was USELESS.
He can take a panoramic approach too: "Who thought we would be here, one game from an Eastern Conference title, back in April? What about February? Who else made it this far in the playoffs while dealing with as much as adversity as us? No one."
The only things Rivers can't do: Erase Game 6 and convince anyone that Boston can survive a second consecutive explosion of that magnitude from James. The efficiency, range, persistence, determination were too much, for anyone. Nobody is stopping that freight train, not when it stops on a dime, shimmy-shakes on the fadeaway and keeps coming for blood throughout all four quarters until the task is complete.
"I don't know," James said, when asked if he could muster another game like that on Saturday. "I take every game as its own."
Then he continued: "I don't really care what the stats say. I won't regret Game 7. Win, lose or draw."
That's the right approach. It's an approach a coach loves to hear. It's an approach that one coach might share with another coach at a summer basketball camp, when the possibility of an NBA Finals berth isn't weighing on the shoulders.
Things didn't go as planned or as hoped for the Celtics in Game 6. There was bitterness, anguish, questions about the no-show and, yes, a little awe at the pure spectacle of James' night. Raising up off this mat seems a near impossible challenge given the thumping, the quick turnaround, and the trip south.
But who better than Rivers, with a championship ring to his name and a team built to withstand adversity, to attempt this impossible?