In this photo taken Thursday, June 7, 2012, Miami Heat forward LeBron James works the ball against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter of Game 6 in their NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals playoff series in Boston Thursday, June 7, 2012. James scored 45 points to lead Miami to a 98-79 win. Game 7 is scheduled for Saturday night in Miami. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
MIAMI — LeBron James has no idea what he will do for an encore.
He offered a simple vow instead.
“I won’t regret Game 7,” James said.
There may not have been another sentiment the Miami Heat would have preferred hearing more as they prepare to host the Boston Celtics Saturday night.
James is coming off a season-saving 45-point, 15-rebound, five-assist effort to force Game 7. The winner will head to Oklahoma City to start the NBA finals on Tuesday night and the loser heads into an offseason of decided uncertainty.
“Win, lose or draw, I’m going to go in with the mindset like I’ve had this whole season,” James said. “And you know, we’ll see what happens.”
A series that has gone back and forth — Miami won the first two games, then lost three straight before James carried the Heat to a win that denied Boston the East crown on Thursday night — comes down to an ultimate game.
For the Heat, it’s a chance to play for the ring they couldn’t win last year in the opening act of the Big Three era. For the Celtics, it’s probably one last chance for their current core to reach the NBA’s mountaintop.
“This team has been about adversity all year long, you know, so this is not going to be nothing new,” Celtics forward Paul Pierce said. “It’s been tough for us all year long to get to the point where we would be at, and why wouldn’t it be tough now? Winning is hard. Trying to get to the finals is hard. And this is as hard as it gets. And I think we are prepared for it.”
It’s the 111th time a best-of-seven NBA series has gone the distance. Home teams are 88-22 in the previous matchups.
That means little to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The last time Boston was on his team’s court, the Celtics sputtered offensively and still managed to leave with a win, taking Game 5 to put Miami on the brink.
The Heat are still there. Only this time, so are the Celtics.
“Both teams will come out with an appropriate level of urgency,” Spoelstra said. “And that’s the beauty of a Game 7. We fought and earned the right to have this on our home court. We don’t take that for granted and we don’t assume that that will take care of anything. We’re going to have to play, compete at the same urgency level we played last night. And we’ll also have to play well and probably have to beat them when they’re at their best.”
If James has the same game he had Thursday, the Celtics will have to beat him at his best.
The reigning MVP put on a show in Game 6. The expression on James’ face barely changed all night — after makes, after misses, even after a drink got dumped on him while leaving the court not long after the final buzzer of Miami’s 98-79 win. He made 19 of 26 shots, that 73 percent success rate the best he ever posted in a playoff game. His 30 first-half points matched an NBA season high. His 45 points were second-most in Heat playoff history.
“Sometimes superstars get hot,” Pierce said.
“He’s been playing unbelievable,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.
“One of the best this league has ever seen,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said.
Of course, if the Heat lose on Saturday, that performance will soon be forgotten.
For the Celtics, this will be their seventh Game 7 in the last five years — they’re 4-2 in the previous ones, including a home win over Philadelphia one round ago. James is averaging 34 points per game in the series, the Celtics are getting both outshot and outrebounded, their best shooter in Ray Allen has been slowed by ankle pain and Pierce is shooting 34 percent.
Here they are, one win from the finals anyway, even after all that and getting written off plenty of times during the regular season.
“Nothing’s been easy up until this point. You know, can’t expect it now,” Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said. “It is what it is. We’re going to take these cards and play them. Lot of confident guys in here, lot of guys who’ve been through Game 7’s, lot of experienced guys. We’re going to lean on that. And we’re going to fight. A bunch of fighters in this locker room.”
Rajon Rondo, who has either made or set up more than half of Boston’s baskets in the series, had similar sentiments.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Boston’s point guard said.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers told his team to pack for a weeklong trip starting Friday. If they win, they’ll go straight from Miami to Oklahoma City.
“We have another opportunity,” Rivers said in Boston on Thursday night. “We get to play another game, Game 7. 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.”
Both sides are tired, beaten up, bruised.
Bosh is working his way back into Miami’s rotation after missing nine games with a strained lower abdominal muscle. Pierce has a sprained knee ligament that he’s been playing on for much of these playoffs. Wade has been coping with knee pain. Rondo’s troublesome elbow may be acting up again. The Celtics are dealing with age. The Heat are dealing with pressure.
None of that will matter on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” Wade said. “It’s going to be a tough one, Game 7. We look forward to it. I’m sure Boston will look forward to it as well. This is what NBA basketball is about.”