Miami Heat forward LeBron James gestures during Game 6 of...

Miami Heat forward LeBron James gestures during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. (June 7, 2012) Credit: AP

BOSTON -- LeBron James wouldn't let the Heat lose Thursday night, wouldn't let Miami's season end.

James had one of the best playoff games of his career, finishing with 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a stirring performance that had to impress his harshest critics and silence them for at least a couple of days.

In a win-or-go-home-and-stay-home contest for Miami, James led the Heat past the Celtics, 98-79, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to tie the best-of-seven series at 3-3.

The seventh and deciding game will be played in Miami Saturday night, with the winner playing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals.

All eyes again will be on James, who scored 30 points in the first half Thursday night, to see if he can lead the Heat to the Finals for the second straight year.

"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 in the course of the game.

"It's a great feeling to be in when you feel everything you put up is going in."

James, the NBA's regular-season MVP, played the first 44:49 of the game and shot 19-for-26 from the field. The only way the Celtics were able to slow him down was to send him to the foul line, where he was just 5-for-9.

"He was amazing," said Dwyane Wade, who shot 6-for-17 and had 17 points. "He was locked in from the beginning of the game like I've never seen before. He put on an MVP performance."

James has been criticized for not carrying his team in defining games the way Michael Jordan did or Kobe Bryant does. James still hasn't won a ring, but in one of the biggest games of his career, he ended the night four points shy of matching his playoff high.

This was the ninth time James faced elimination and the third time against the Celtics. He was 2-6 coming in, with the Celtics ending his season twice on their home floor. James equaled the 45 he had in the memorable Game 7 of the 2008 East semifinals here but the Celtics won that one.

"Now you guys can stop talking about LeBron and he doesn't play in big games," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He was pretty good. Now that's too bad."

Rajon Rondo had 21 points and 10 assists. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce totaled only 31 points for the Celtics, who shot 1-for-14 from three-point range.

The Heat seemed in control of the series after winning the first two games. Miami had chances to win Game 4 and 5, but the Celtics made the plays when needed, winning both by a total of six points.

In Game 6, James and the Heat were up 10 less than 10 minutes into the game and never let the Celtics get closer than seven.

"It was a matter of too much LeBron," Rivers said. "The guy was sensational. He set the tone for their whole team. I thought he gave them comfort in the way that he played . . . It's one loss against a great player against our defense. I think our guys should take that very personal."

James probably will take Game 7 personally, too. He knows he'll be under the microscope, with his detractors waiting to pounce if the Heat loses and he doesn't play well, especially late in the game.

"I won't regret Game 7," James said. "Win, lose or draw, I'll go in with the mind-set I've had all season and we'll see what happens."

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