LeBron James heard all of your criticism, and he didn't like it.
All you who said LeBron didn't have that championship mindset, that he didn't have it in him to lead, that he'd shrivel up and die in the face of the elimination-game pressure: LeBron heard you. All of you. He internalized your words, he bottled up all his anger, and he unleashed it for 48 minutes in one of the greatest performances Boston -- or any other city on the planet, for that matter -- had ever seen.
Knowing he'd never hear the end of it if he failed tonight, LeBron did the only thing he could do: refuse to fail. The result was 45 points on a mere 26 shot attempts, one of the most jaw-droppingly efficient scoring performances in NBA playoff history. Just for fun, he threw in 15 rebounds and five assists, singlehandedly carrying the Miami Heat to a blowout win over the Celtics in Game 6. He didn't need to come up big in the fourth quarter, critics be damned -- he watched the final minutes from the bench this time, his team already up 20. Clutchness was a moot point.
"I hope now you guys can stop talking about LeBron and that he doesn't play well in big games," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the convincing loss, a 98-79 final. "He was pretty good tonight. Now that's to bed, and we can go ahead and play Game 7."
LeBron was ready to silence the criticism from the very start. He entered the TD Garden this evening solemn and focused; he was quiet in the locker room pregame, with no loud music and no side chatter with teammates. He knew this was the biggest game of his season, and he came in ready. Facing elimination for the first time since Game 6 against the Mavericks in last year's Finals, he responded.
With 14 points in the first quarter on 6-of-7 shooting, LeBron nearly matched the Celtics' entire team (16). Meanwhile on the other end, he held Paul Pierce to two points on 1-of-4 shooting, with three missed 3's. The Celtics were throwing every defender they could find in his direction, and nothing was working.
"We've just got to make it harder for him," Rajon Rondo noted. "It's too easy."
LeBron added 16 points more in the second quarter and 11 in the third, leaving the Celtics in the dust. It was clear early on -- there would be a Game 7.
The Heat's three-time MVP was so dominant that his lackluster teammates went unnoticed. It was an afterthought that Dwyane Wade missed 10 of his first 12 shots, that Chris Bosh still wasn't his normal self, that Mario Chalmers' play was scatterbrained on both ends, that Mike Miller was a complete no-show. Wade in particular got a lucky bailout -- it was his fourth consecutive game missing the majority of his shots, and several of them were embarrassing ones. Layups. Open jumpers with LeBron double-teamed. Looks he should have made -- but no one noticed or cared, because LeBron covered up every Miami miscue.
"He played amazing," said Wade, who called James' performance the best he's seen with the Heat. "He was locked in from the beginning of the game like I've never seen him before. The shots he was making were unbelievable. He really put on an MVP performance tonight -- not just scoring, but rebounding, defending. He did it all tonight."
LeBron denies that this performance was motivated by the external criticism. He said he wasn't listening to the talking heads on TV or radio, that he was keeping to himself mostly, reading books, watching movies. But if you saw the look in his eye throughout Game 6, you saw anger. You saw not just an intrinsically great player, but a player with a little extra motivation. He's been through a lot of battles with these Celtics over the years, and he knows the significance of each one. He wanted to beat this team, in this building.
"In an environment like this, you want to have a big game," James said. "I wanted to be there for my teammates no matter what was going on throughout the course of the game. I'm happy I was able to make some plays, both offensively and defensively, to help us win."
"I think what fuels him is this moment," said his coach, Erik Spoelstra. "The moment will define you. We've been through a lot in the last two years, and we've all learned how to compartmentalize and quiet all the noise out, just focus on the matter at hand. He did a tremendous job of that. I don't think he really felt all the noise from the outside. He was focused and concentrated just on the team and what he needed to do to help us win. That took a great deal of discipline on his part."
Now it all comes down to a Game 7, and of course the question is whether LeBron can do it all again. The Celtics aren't backing down, even after a blowout loss, and they're going to make one last spirited push to win their third Eastern Conference title. For LeBron, it might take another 45 points and 15 boards to end the Celtics' season. He's trying not to approach it that way, but it's tough.
"I'm going to play my game and play as hard as I can, and I won't really care what the stats say," James said. "I won't regret Game 7. Win, lose or draw, I'm going to go in with the mindset that I've had this whole season. We'll see what happens."
We sure will. The whole basketball world will be watching Saturday night. We'll all find out whether LeBron can silence all his doubters one more time.