BOSTON — When LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to join Dwyane Wade two years ago, the thought was the South Beach Trio one day would snatch the torch from the original Big Three of the modern era, Boston’s Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
And on Sunday night, James and Wade each had an opportunity to start the final countdown to a new championship era, and each fell short, breathing life into a team that was counted out just one week ago.
James and Wade both failed to deliver in the clutch _ James in regulation and Wade in overtime _ giving the suddenly energized Celtics hope that there just might be one more storybook ending for this geriatric group.
How big was Boston’s 93-91 overtime thriller that evened the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece?
If James was more forceful on the final play of regulation, or if Wade had made an open three at the buzzer in overtime, the Celtics would have been down 3-1 and the next two days would have been spent working on their obituary.
Now, the Celtics are rejuvenated, thanks to the failures of two of the three players they inspired to join forces.
“No one said this was going to be easy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Not for the Heat. Not for James. Not for Wade.
The Heat squandered a golden opportunity to virtually assure themselves of a return trip to the Finals, and now find themselves two games from another endless summer of scrutiny and second-guessing. And if you thought last summer was difficult for Miami after the Heat was dumped in six games by the Mavericks in the Finals, wait to you see what happens if the Heat blows this series after leading 2-0.
James might be looking to take his talents to South America to get as far away from Miami as possible.
And this one is on the two superstars. Neither James nor Wade could make one more play to salvage the split here, which would almost certainly have guaranteed the passing of the torch Tuesday in Miami.
Instead, James lived up to the perception that he wilts in the season’s biggest moments, and Wade continued his perplexing inconsistent play in these playoffs.
James has taken on an incredible burden since coming to Miami, and despite his much deserved third MVP this season, he will only be accepted the way Wade has been by winning a title. But Sunday was not one of his more shining moments.
James had a chance to end Game 4 in regulation when the ball was in hands in the final seconds of a tie game. But instead of creating space, instead of taking the ball to the basket, James hesitated, dribbled into a double team and then had no choice but to do just want Boston wanted, get rid of the ball. He saw Udonis Haslem, who corralled the shaky pass and threw up an awkward shot that had no chance.
If the Celtics had drawn up that play, they would have had Haslem taking that shot.
“I had one-on-one until KG came and doubled the ball,” said James, who also missed a 3 and a free throw in the final minutes. “I dribbled the ball middle and saw UD circling underneath. KG got a hand on my wrist when I tried to make a pass to UD and we didn’t get off a good look.”
Three minutes into overtime, with the Celtics ahead by one, James backed over Mickael Pietrus for his sixth personal foul and seventh turnover. It was the first time James fouled out since joining the Heat, and the first time he ever fouled out of a playoff game.
“I don’t think I fouled him,” James said.
On to Wade.
With his wingman on the bench, Wade was flying solo the final two minutes of overtime (remember, Chris Bosh, the third wheel in this Big Three has not played since straining his abdomen in the first game of the Pacers series). And for a player who built a reputation on taking and making big shots, the 2012 playoffs have not been his finest moment.
Wade has been an enigma during the ECF, starting slow in all four games before turning it on late. Sunday followed a similar pattern, and there he was with the ball in his hands ready to quiet the deafening TD Garden crowd.
When Miami took the ball out of bounds with 14 seconds remaining, everyone on both teams, everyone in the building and everyone able to stay awake through the entire telecast knew nobody but Wade would take that shot.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers instructed Marquis Daniels to watch for the pump fake. Daniels did, jumping out of the way when Wade faked, giving Wade an open look at a potential game-winning three. Wade rose, kicked out his right leg and released.
“I thought it looked good when it left his hands,” Rivers said.
“It was on line,” Wade said. “It was all you can ask for. It just decided it didn’t want to go in.”
Or maybe it just decided this just is not the time to bury Boston’s Big Three.
“We have a chance of winning this series,” Pierce said. “It’s not going to be easy. Ya know, a good old classic bar fight coming down to the wire, both teams trying to find an edge.”
Tom D’Angelo has been a sportswriter for the Palm Beach Post since 1981. He graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with a degree in journalism. In 2009 he was inducted into the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame.