Yes, LeBron, the foul's on you.
It was the Celtics who woke up on Friday morning in disarray. They were down 0-2 to the Miami Heat, and their season was virtually on Death Row. Naturally, there were fans bitter about the lack of production from everyone not named Rajon Rondo, there were media skeptics wondering why Danny Ainge didn't blow this roster up in March, and there were players, coaches and peripheral viewers alike crying foul about the officiating in Miami in Games 1 and 2. In other words, all hell had broken loose.
A lot has changed in three days.
The Celtics have battled back with two wins at home, and now the tables have turned. It's the Heat losing their composure. It's the Heat making excuses. It's the Heat beginning to come unraveled. It's the Heat who need to put themselves back together in time to save their season. We'll see if they have what it takes.
Three superstars converged in Miami in the summer of 2010 with the intent to bring multiple championships to South Beach. But at the end of Game 4, a 93-91 overtime loss to the resurgent Celtics, none of the three had the same swagger they brought to their pep rally two summers ago.
One was watching from the bench, having fouled out for the first time since 2008, when he wore a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform.
One stubbornly missed a hero-ball jump shot at the buzzer, too proud to find an open teammate coming off a potentially game-winning pindown screen.
One looked good in a suit.
That was Game 4 in a nutshell -- the Heat fought all the way back from a 16-point deficit in the second half to force overtime at the TD Garden and give themselves a shot at a 3-1 series lead, but their comeback effort fell flat in the extra session. There were three big reasons: LeBron James fouled out with 1:51 left in the game, leaving the Heat predictably one-dimensional; Dwyane Wade (the aforementioned one dimension) passed up a wide-open Mario Chalmers for the game winner; and Chris Bosh, the man coach Erik Spoelstra has repeatedly lauded as the team's most important player, still hasn't donned his No. 1 Heat jersey in this series. For the moment, the three kings look like jesters.
For LeBron, the six fouls were a surprising turnaround from the first three games of this series, in which the MVP amassed eight total personal fouls versus 10 for Paul Pierce and 13 for Kevin Garnett. This time it was LeBron getting whistled, and he didn't handle it well -- with each call, the "are you kidding me?" face became more and more exaggerated. He was incredulous in the moment, and he didn't back down later, either.
"I don't foul out," he insisted in the locker room postgame. "That sixth foul, I wish I would have earned it and it had actually been a foul on me. Whatever."
Mind you, any talk of referee conspiracy for either side in this series is utter poppycock -- anyone with half a brain who actually watches this league knows better than to listen to the talk-radio bickering about David Stern puppeteering the NBA like he's Vince McMahon. These games are won and lost by the players on the court, no doubt. But the metagame at work here is compelling -- even if the playing field is fair, the Celtics now have LeBron thinking it isn't. They're in his head. That's half the battle.
As for Wade, the Heat's so-called "closer" missed 14 of his first 21 attempts from the field in Game 4, and his 22nd one didn't turn out well either. He had a chance to notch a game-winning assist with Chalmers open for the big shot at the buzzer, but Wade had endured a weekend of merciless booing from the Boston crowd, and he was dying to silence them with a shot of his own. So he forced a contested 3 -- despite being 27.8 percent from long distance in these playoffs, 26.8 percent for the season and 29.1 percent for his career -- and it rimmed out. Rather than put a foot on the Celtics' throats, he let them back into the series with one unfortunate shot.
"It was on line," he said later. "It was all you can ask for. I got my legs on the middle and shot it, and it was on line. It just decided it didn’t want to go in."
Neither LeBron nor Wade approached the podium after losing Game 4, instead getting their postgame interviews over with quickly and quietly in the first few minutes of locker-room availability. Both superstars appear to be shying away from the moment. On Friday, they had a dominating lead in this series; now they're vulnerable, and they don't quite know how to handle it.
Game 5 will be another story. The Heat will be back home, where they've been unbeatable; they may have Bosh back in the fold; and they may channel the exact same fury that led them to bury the Indiana Pacers last round after falling behind 2-1 in that series. A lot could change on Tuesday, just as it did this weekend.
But for the moment, the Heat are feeling the pressure of a team facing its own mortality. Just as the Celtics did after Games 1 and 2.
If they're really meant to be champions, they'll need to overcome this. In 48 hours, we'll know whether they're capable.