MIAMI -- The horn sounded and white towels fluttered in the air at American Airlines Arena, raining down with relief and elation and chaos as Dwyane Wade leaped into the stands for a loose ball. The clock had run out on the Celtics' dominance of two of the game's biggest stars, and 30 feet away, LeBron James bent down on one knee and tapped the floor.
A year's worth of failures, missteps, criticism, and downright hatred all came rushing back. Finally for James, a triumph. Finally, a measure of vindication.
Nearly a year to the day after the Celtics ran him out of the playoffs, ran him out of Cleveland and into the embrace of Wade in Miami, James knelt victorious on the floor to savor a 97-87 victory over the Celtics -- a 4-1 victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals, over the team whose ruthlessness spawned this Miami hurricane in the first place.
"Part of the reason we came together was them laying the blueprint," James said. "They pushed us, every second, every play, every minute out on the court. If we made a mistake, they made us pay for it."
He ran it all back in his mind, there on the floor in a tidal wave of emotion -- the mirror image of a wave that was washing over the Celtics.
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"Everything went through my mind," James said. "Everything with this team and everything I went through with the decision, deciding to come down here, because I knew how important team was to this sport. All the backlash I got from it, the talks me and D-Wade had. I'd be up here for two hours if I told you everything that went through my head. It was just very emotional at that point."
In the end, it was just as James had planned it. In a closeout game against the Celtics on his home floor, LeBron scored 33 points, including the final 10 points of the game by both teams. Wade, who'd come to the same realization that James did after getting knocked out by Boston last year, scored 34. LeBron and Wade totaled 102 field goals in the series; 51 each.
"At halftime I told my teammates I wanted this game," Wade said. "And LeBron said, 'I got your back.' And we've had each other's back all year."
They came after the aging, injured Celtics with one haymaker after another, just as Boston had done to them.
"You're not beating a team like the Boston Celtics with one guy that's the focal point of the offense," Wade said. "That's why I said last year that I'm not going out in the first round again. I'm not putting myself in this position. I'm gonna recruit and get some help. I understood that I needed help, especially against a team like that."
Said LeBron: "I knew deep down in my heart, as much as I loved teammates back in Cleveland and as much as I loved back home, I couldn't do it by myself."
And he took it one more step, saying something his fans -- and former fans -- in Northeast Ohio had been waiting 10 months to hear. He finally said he's sorry for the debacle that was "The Decision," the P.R. disaster that turned a season's worth of venom on him and his new team.
"I knew I had to go through Boston at some point," James said. "I went through a lot signing to be here and the way it panned out. I apologize for the way it happened, but I knew that this opportunity was once in a lifetime."
It was an opportunity born out of necessity, out of spectacular failure against the Celtics. This time, in victory, James pushed through the crowd to help Wade to his feet, and their embrace was shown on the scoreboard to the elation of the crowd. Another hug was on its way, from Glenn "Doc" Rivers. The Celtics' coach walked across the court to shake hands with the two guys he'd feared for almost a year would be conspiring to come take what he has.
"I love you," Rivers told Wade, who he's known since the Heat star -- and fellow Marquette Golden Eagle -- was in high school. He said it to James, too, and they hugged in the middle of the chaos that comes when a champion is knocked off and a stubborn obstacle is overcome.
"I love you," James said to Rivers in that moment. "I'm amazed how you got those guys -- you could see they were struggling, and you got them to still play. I don't know how you do that."
Rivers will be back to do it again, announcing after the game that he's "leaning heavily toward coming back." He won't walk away from this team, from this challenge, now that Miami's dynamic duo has taken the Celtics' blueprint and improved on it.
"I've never seen a team more criticized in my life, and a guy in LeBron who was more criticized for doing what was legal," Rivers said. "He didn't break any law. He didn't do anything wrong. The preseason parade may have been a little much, but good for him."
Rivers said he doesn't think the Celtics are done, and now he will reload and come back to beat the team that beat him. The epic collision of talent that James and Wade brought together will be on Rivers' mind for months, just as the Celtics shook two of the game's biggest stars to their core.
"When we went into the summer of 2010 -- or the summer of LeBron, whatever you want to call it -- the Boston Celtics were on our mind," Wade said. "When you decide to give up $17 million, when you decide to not care about self and go out and team up with a guy like LeBron and a guy like
"We wouldn't have wanted it any other way," Wade said. "If we had gone through this playoff and not been able to play Boston, it wouldn't have been right."
The blueprint, it turns out, worked like a charm.