MIAMI As much as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh chafed at the trash talk, the head games and even the pushups each time they have played Boston, deep down they knew there was a reason the Celtics, after putting Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett alongside Paul Pierce had won a title, lost another in Game 7, and never, ever went down without a fight.
The Celtics not only played with heart of a champion, but with the head of one.
That's what had to make Miami's 101-88 victory Saturday night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals so gratifying.
This wasn't so much the nouveau Big Three vanquishing the standard bearer as it was the Heat keeping alive their championship-or-bust season by winning the Celtics' way.
In a game that was thick with tension and drama, befitting not only a Game 7, but this entire series, it was the Celtics that blinked, not the Heat.
For nearly 12 minutes in the second half, neither team led by more than two points. Then James rose in the biggest moments, Bosh did not shrink from big shots and Wade found a poise that matched his passion. The Heat's identity as a lock-down defense resurfaced and the ball moved crisply and decisively.
"What can I say?" Pierce said. "It was a tie game, one quarter to go, winner plays for the championship. What more can you ask for? They made the plays they needed to make to get there."
When Miami went to the bench at the end of the third quarter, the score tied and 12 minutes left to define its season, the Heat settled in and gave themselves 30 seconds, to clear their heads of the anxiety that hung in the arena around them.
"What we're saying to each other is it's time," said James, who along with Wade and Bosh scored all of Miami's 28 fourth-quarter points. "It's time."
Now, Miami heads to Oklahoma City, where the NBA Finals will begin Tuesday. The Finals figure to be intriguing, with the two stars, James and Kevin Durant, close friends but also cultural counterpoints one who audaciously took his talents to South Beach and the other who is pleased as punch to be in one of the NBA's most remote outposts.
As delicious as the possibilities are, it will have a hard time being as captivating as this one.
Rajon Rondo was spectacular at times for Boston, and also antagonized the Heat saying during a halftime TV interview that they "cried" about calls. James was confronted by questions about his late-game foibles after missing a pair of potential game-winners. Wade missed one, too, when James and Pierce fouled out on controversial calls. And Miami coach Erik Spoelstra looked overmatched by Boston's Doc Rivers.
When the Heat lost three consecutive games in this series done in by "unintelligent play," according to Shane Battier after Game 5 they looked heartless and hopeless.
Then James delivered a performance for the ages in Game 6, with 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in the Boston Garden, a place where Miami had lost 15 of its last 16 games, and had served as the stage for James' exit from Cleveland two years ago.
If it was unrealistic to expect a similar performance Saturday, even by the standards that James is judged by, it was not necessary.
James had 31 points, 12 rebounds both game highs and two assists, but those numbers belie how well he facilitated opportunities for others. He knew better than to rely on his jumper two nights in a row, so he attacked the basket, which allowed him to get to the foul line 17 times. When Boston sent an extra defender, he made decisive passes.
Often that second defender turned out to be Garnett, who was defending Bosh. That allowed Bosh, who had missed three weeks with an abdominal strain before returning in Game 5, to make two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and three for the game, something he had never before done in his NBA career. In all, he finished with 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting along with nine rebounds.
"Listen, if that's what's going to beat you," Rivers said. "If you had told me that before the game . . . their center is beating you with the 3-point shot late in the shot clock and we got the ball out of LeBron's hands, honestly, I think we would take it."
Bosh's final 3-pointer, coming when James collapsed the defense on a drive to the basket, put Miami ahead 86-82 with 7:17 left. It was the first time since early in the third quarter that either team had any breathing room.
When James sank a 30-footer with 5:44 left, holding his follow through as he jogged back down court, it gave Miami, which had trailed by 13 in the second quarter, a seven-point lead and also dented the psyche of the Celtics.
"That was a backbreaker for us," Rivers said.
After Rondo's layup, the Celtics went dry on their next six possessions missing five shots and turning the ball over once.
Finally, with the Celtics down by 11 with 28.3 seconds left, Rivers removed Allen, Garnett, Pierce and Rondo. With Allen, who turns 37 next month, and Garnett, 36, both free agents, an inevitable topic afterward was whether it was the end of an era.
As much talk as there has been about a changing of the guard in the Western Conference, with Oklahoma City vanquishing the teams that have won the last 13 conference titles the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks that's also what Saturday night was about in the East. Miami may have beaten Boston last May, but that series shifted sharply when Rondo was injured. This time there were no qualifiers.
The changing of the guard may be more ephemeral in the East, given the Thunder's youth and seeming staying power, but it may have been more profound the Heat finally learning the lessons that seemed to elude them.
"You can never relax," James said of the lessons gleaned from playing the Celtics. "You can never feel comfortable. You always feel on edge when you go against them. This is their chemistry that they built over the years. It's like no other team that I've ever faced in the postseason. They're great."
Wade, who delivered 23 points and six assists, said his takeaway from playing the Celtics was how they endured talk for the last three years that they were too old.
"They get dirt thrown on them all the time," said Wade, whose team is quite used to having dirt thrown at it, if not on it. "They continue to come out and prove they're going to be there. So we look at them as a team and say look what they deal with, look what they go through on a yearly basis."
As Wade and James sat side by side at the interview podium, all the hard knocks and hard lessons the Celtics had delivered to them in recent years could be wrapped up in a simple sentiment and a single word.