On Thursday night, the Heat returned to American Airlines Arena following a defeat at the hands of Roy Hibbert and the Pacers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Any talk about the Pacers gaining any momentum from Tuesday night's game dissipated as the Heat's LeBron James took over the game in the second half. The Heat beat the Pacers 90-79 to take a 3-2 series lead and put the Pacers one game away from elimination. It's tempting to describe Game Five a turning point in the series for Miami, but this series has shown that Indiana bounces back well from defeat.
In the first half, it looked as if the series would have some continuity with Indiana picking up where they left off in Game Four. The Pacers took an early lead, partly thanks to an absolutely on-fire Paul George who finished the game with a team-high 27 points. However, with George, Hibbert and David West generating nearly all of Indiana's offense, the Pacers let Miami creep back into the game. At the end of the half, the Pacers only had a four-point lead, as good as a tie against a dangerous Miami Heat team that thrives on second half adjustments.
The Pacers realized this early in the third quarter, as the MVP version of LeBron James emerged from the locker room determined to shut them down. By game's end, James had collected 30 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists, and these numbers fail to convey how completely dominant he was. The Heat outscored the Pacers 30-13 in the third quarter. Not only did James have a hand in 25 of those 30 points, he also was a major part of the Heat's stifling third quarter defense.
With LeBron James having a "LeBron James game", all Miami needed to seal a win was one other player to step up. Confounding pregame predictions that either Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh needed to have a solid game for Miami to win, the two combined for a mere 17 points, it was Udonis Haslem who was the Heat's second best player. Haslem had his second "throwback" performance in three games on Thursday, scoring 16 points in yet another near-perfect shooting night. Perhaps talk of his out-of-nowhere Game Three performance being something of his swan song, like many predictions made during this series, might have been premature. Led by James and Haslem, the Heat cruised through a comparatively quiet fourth quarter to take a 3-2 series lead with an eye on wrapping things up in Indiana on Saturday.
The image of LeBron James essentially single-handedly (sorry Udonis) winning a game for the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals provoked flashbacks to his career-highlight Game Six against the Boston Celtics last year. A game away from elimination, LeBron James found another gear at TD Garden where he demolished the Boston Celtics and extinguished their Finals hopes with a vaguely frightening 45 point performance. The series seemed over after Game Six, even though the Heat still needed one more win to advance, as James's heroics effectively exposed the Boston Celtics. Should the Heat build on James's performance on Thursday night and win Game Six with relative ease, expect Thursday night's game to be discussed in similar terms as the moment where LeBron James took his game to another gear in these playoffs.
This Eastern Conference Finals, though, feels different from last year's, especially since the Pacers have shown a tenacious knack of bouncing back from disappointment, learning from their defeat and making the right adjustments in the very next game. Not only have the Heat and Pacers trading wins, it feels like they have been trading runs ever since the roller coaster ride that was Game One of the series. Even Thursday's game was a game of two very different stretches, with the Pacers seemingly in control for most of the first half and LeBron James absolutely in control in all of the second. It's no coincidence that the Pacers have answered every Heat victory with a win of their own, and it would be folly to assume that James and the Heat have now "figured out" Indiana.
This has been a series that has routinely mocked anyone who has attempted to predict the next game by reading the scattered tea leaves of the game that came before. For instance, before LeBron James rewrote the game story on Thursday night, Game Five was gearing up to be about the officiating. Fans of both teams criticized the officiating in Game Four, which featured a typically clownish display from egocentric official Joey Crawford, a botched 24-second call and LeBron James controversially fouling out in the game's final minute. Then, before game Five, the league announced fines on LeBron James, David West and Indiana's Lance Stephenson for their particularly egregious flopping during the very same game.
Early on, Game Five threatened to be yet another referendum on player behavior and official incompetence. In the most heated moment of the second quarter, Miami's Chris "Birdman" Andersen, quite possibly the most disturbing human being in the NBA, shoved Indiana's Tyler Hansbrough, escalating an already tension-filled series between these two teams.
Although it seemed like a clear case for an ejection on Andersen, both players were given technical fouls. Although Andersen's was upgraded to a flagrant, he still stayed in the game and, in fact, promptly made a huge block for Miami. Thankfully for everybody, LeBron James's monster second half rendered the non-ejection mostly moot, and spared David Stern and the NBA from yet another media cycle where the officiating overshadowed the on-the-court action.
Aside from LeBron, the Miami Heat and the officials, the other big winner on Thursday night might have been the San Antonio Spurs, enjoying a well-deserved staycation after sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals. As the Heat and Pacers prepare for what should be another exhausting physical game on Saturday, one imagines that the veteran Spurs stars are rooting for Indiana to defy how the series seems to be trending by forcing Miami to play a Game Seven, preferably one with multiple overtimes. Given how this series has gone so far, it might be as likely of a scenario as any other.
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image: © Keith Allison