The Heat win whenever the greatest player in the game displays the reasons for his title. LeBron James (30 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block) was at it again in the Heat's 90-79 win over the Pacers in Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals on Thursday in Miami.
The Pacers win when all five starters shine. Thursday night was a three-star performance. And two of the three stars (Roy Hibbert and David West) weren't up to their usual bullheaded ways on the boards, each managing a mere two offensive rebounds.
“We talked about getting into our game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters in the postgame news conference. “That's the whole deal. It's two contrasting styles. If our pressure, speed and quickness doesn't get to their size, their size will get to us. We learned that the hard way.”
Oh, yeah, it helps in a big way when James dominates a pivotal part of the game, as he did in his 16-point, four-rebound, four-assist third quarter.
“That's LeBron showing his greatness and making it look easy,” Spoelstra said.
James took over in the third quarter after admonishing his teammates to get it together in a sideline huddle. He drove. He spun. He passed. He rebounded. He keyed a team defensive run. He glared at the shrinking Lance Stephenson (four points, all when everything was decided) and shouted something not ready for FCC-approved replay after one big play.
James was mad, and it showed, and the Pacers paid.
That hardly means the series pendulum won't swing back the Pacers way as the Heat bring a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday night.
“Our backs are up against the wall again,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said in his postgame address. “They took care of business on their home court. It's up to us to come back and get Game 6 and get to Game 7.”
This series deserves to go seven, no matter which team owns your allegiance. The Pacers have given the Heat the most grief of any team all season. Hibbert, West and Paul George (27 points on Thursday) all had some moments of high-level play in Game 5. They had no help from Stephenson or George Hill (one point), but that only leads series observers to expect a full rebound from the guards in Game 6.
At each stop in the series so far, the loser of the previous game has returned to the court more determined, more focused and more successful.
Game 6 will have a different feel in one regard, with the Heat owning the chance to clinch the series and move to the Finals against San Antonio.
Urgency (and LeBron) was the third-quarter difference that led to Miami's control in Game 5.
“(James') engine in that third quarter was incredible,” Spoelstra said. “He was tireless, making plays at both ends of the court, rebounding, making virtually every play. It was remarkable and a testament to his conditioning and his greatness, and his ability to make big plays when he needs it.”
Only one team has James, and that's what sets the Heat apart. It was James who encouraged and then found Udonis Haslem in the second half with Haslem finishing 8-of-9 shooting.
James doesn't need much help, and he's not getting much from the likes of Dwyane Wade (10 points) or Chris Bosh (seven points but decent defense).
The Heat used to be known as the Big Three. Now they're looking like a tribute to James' run with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But from the time “Birdman” Anderson flapped his sharp wing into Tyler Hansbrough, followed by a bump and a push, the Heat turned up their level of play. Anderson should have been ejected. Instead, he was assessed a technical foul for his rough behavior and Hansbrough was punished for being Hansbrough. Or for breathing. It's hard to say.
Once again, this leaves the Pacers to respond.
I'm not going to make the mistake I made after the Heat won Game 3 in convincing fashion. I'm not declaring the tone of the series altered by the Heat prevailing on Thursday.
The Pacers may be tired from dealing with James. He's a menace – and I mean that in a good way – at all points on the floor.
Indiana must counter the way it did in winning Game 2 and Game 4. The Pacers have to be tougher, more aggressive. They have to find Hibbert and West down low. George must hit his open shots, Stephenson must slash and dash and convert while annoying without over-motivating James.
Hill must be better than the third-most active point guard behind Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.
All of the above seem likely to happen in Game 6. This series has an obvious alternating pattern.
Indiana can even it back up, presuming they bring the fight and energy they have in their two previous wins and, in fact, in the first quarter Thursday.
I can't imagine the Pacers going out with a whimper. They've fought too long and shown too much pride. A raucous crowd will be on hand to spur them on.
No way will Indiana let one man beat them on their home court.
Now if James plays like two or three men at once, as he did in the third quarter Thursday, all bets will be off. And the Pacers will be on to the offseason.