MIAMI – The Band of Brothers, bedecked in Band-Aids, have finally punched back.
After days of the Indiana Pacers' browbeating and posturing, led by tough-but-empty talk from Danny Granger, the Miami Heat delivered what looks like a knockout blow Tuesday night in a 115-83 Game 5 destruction of a team they recently couldn't seem to solve. And now Indiana, once so full of bravado, has been called out by no less than team president Larry Bird.
"I can't believe my team went soft," Bird told the Indianapolis Star late Tuesday. "S-O-F-T. I'm disappointed. I never thought it would happen."
It started to happen early in the second quarter, after the Pacers' Tyler Hansbrough came down hard with an arm across the face of Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
"I thought it was uncalled for," Wade said after the game, adding, "My face is not the ball."
Wade was shaken up and cut, blood trickling down the right side of his face in two streams. Hansbrough was charged with a flagrant foul, and Wade said he told his players to keep their heads in the game.
That they did. But they sure didn't do it quietly. Moments later, at the other end of the court, Heat forward Udonis Haslem slammed Hansbrough in the face with a chop of his own. Just about everyone who saw the play felt Haslem was sending a retaliatory message: You hurt our star, we let you know about it. It was straight out of a hockey game, with "U.D." playing the enforcer. Haslem denied any intent: "I never play to hurt nobody," he said after the game. "I play hard and that's it."
He was given a flagrant-1, but the league will review the play and there is a chance Haslem will be suspended for Thursday's Game 6 in Indianapolis. "He came at me," Hansbrough said after the game. "It was pretty clear."
While Pacers coach Frank Vogel sidestepped the matter, labeling it a "referee's call," Granger echoed his teammate's sentiment.
"I saw it was bad in the game. Then I came back here and I saw the replay," Granger said. "It looked about three times worse."
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Whether Haslem's foul was deliberate or not is in some ways immaterial; perception is reality, and this was seen as a teammate standing up for his brother. A group that showed cracks as recently as Game 3 now showed only unity. And Miami backed it up not only by trouncing the Pacers on the court in a 27-17 third quarter, but also by harping on the same non-violent message after the final horn.
Haslem, Ronny Turiaf and Mario Chalmers all said the foul on Wade didn't bother them. "No resentment," Turiaf said. "I don't know what you're trying to get from me."
That's another credit to the Heat, who have largely stayed above the fray through this series. James has been the bigger man in every tense situation, whether laughing at Lance Stephenson's choke sign – Stephenson later got a measure of comeuppance from Dexter Pittman – or dismissing Granger's antics, preferring to inflict pain through his game.
"We have a bunch of physical guys who are not afraid of contact," he said flatly after Game 5. "[The physicality] definitely fuels us. We were able to maintain our focus and play at a high level."
That's an understatement. James was phenomenal, much as he was in Game 4. He had 30 points on Tuesday and much of his damage was done before he had even three points. He got Shane Battier's 3-point shot going with deft passes out to the perimeter, had his hands everywhere in the passing lanes, and bombarded the paint with abandon – all early in the first quarter. James can actually beat a team one-on-five because he can play all five positions at once.
Granger had no shot Tuesday, and actually was reduced to grabbing James' massive arm during a third-quarter drive before hobbling away with an ankle injury that Vogel called "day-to-day." Whether Granger returns, don't expect him to figure out any counter to James, who has left behind the hesitation and false starting that slowed him in Games 1 and 2. He was a tornado on Tuesday: In the first quarter alone, he nailed a Kareem-like sky hook, a Jordan-like fall-away, and a Bird-like 3. He was literally a step ahead of everyone, both in the lane and in transition, which is why the Heat outscored Indiana 22-2 in fast-break points and crushed the Pacers by 20 in the paint. The absence of Chris Bosh, at first crippling, has forced the emergence of LeBron 2.0.
"He's been that much more aggressive," Wade said. "He's been attacking."
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Kelly Dwyer on impressive Heat]
And James' best moment might have been his most subtle: At the end of the first quarter, he got the ball on the wing in an isolation against Hansbrough. He peered at his defender and rolled his head around in a boxer-like bob. The courtside crowd ooh'd and aah'd in delight. James then put his head down and bashed into Hansbrough like a charging bull. He didn't make the shot, but he made it clear – he's feeling it now.
There's a runaway momentum to the Heat – a sense they've been tested and figured themselves out. They've come together at a time when they could have fallen apart. Doubters who say the team is a bunch of frontrunners who fold at the slightest adversity now have something else to consider. Whether the Heat can win a title is a question for another week. Whether they can get bruised and emerge unbowed has been answered. Now the Pacers have to answer the same question, both for themselves and for their legendary president.
A sea of Heat fans showed up Tuesday with mock Haslem "UD-40" Band-Aids on their brows. By the end of the night, some had written "Wade" on a second bandage in appreciation of their team's latest badge of honor. Call it "Band-Wade." The tribute was cute, but the undercurrent is anything but:
The Heat smell blood.
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