INDIANAPOLIS — Nobody could have predicted a game like this — nobody can predict anything when it comes to these Indiana Pacers anymore — but somehow the Eastern Conference finals’ story ran even stranger in Wednesday’s Game 5.
LeBron James played only 24 minutes after sitting most of the second and third quarters with foul trouble, registering his fifth foul with 8:34 in the third. Dwyane Wade turned the ball over six times. And yet, the Heat still had a chance to win it in the final seconds. Indiana prevailed, 93-90, temporarily delaying the Heat’s fourth consecutive trip to the NBA finals and throwing the Eastern Conference finals back to Miami for Friday’s Game 6.
The Pacers rode an MVP-level turn from All-Star Paul George in the win. George overcame an up-and-down first half, missing six of his first eight 3-point shots, before scoring 21 third-quarter points and finishing with 37 overall. He also added six rebounds and a sometimes-startling six steals, either crossing over Heat scorers as they attempted to drive to the basket, or diving into passing lanes to knock things free. The struggling swingman “took it to another level” in Game 5, according to Pacers coach Frank Vogel, and yet the defending champs still had their chances in the game’s final minute. Somehow.
James, working with five fouls, re-entered the game with 10:30 left in the fourth quarter and with his team down eight points. Though LeBron missed four of five shots in that deciding quarter, he also nailed two free throws, dished two assists and hit a 3-pointer, riding the Pacers’ fear of his penetration and finishing abilities to initiate ball movement and tie the game seven minutes after his return to live action.
The Pacers relented, relying on George’s continued work on the perimeter (playing on legs that left him on the court for 45 minutes) to keep the Heat a step behind. But Miami still found itself down two points with 12.8 seconds left in the contest, working with the ball and planning on placing it their team MVP’s hands.
LeBron drove, and did have a potentially makeable shot in the paint with Roy Hibbert hovering, but he decided to dish to a briefly open Chris Bosh in the corner for a potential conference-winning 3-pointer.
“I think he saw C.B. open for a count in the corner,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the loss, “in his corner.”
James “went for the kill,” according to his coach.
“We’ll take that. We’ll take that look," Spoelstra said. "We’ll take being able to get two feet in the paint, an opportunity to spray to one of our better clutch 3-point shooters in his spot.”
“Win, lose, or draw,” James concluded, “you live with that.”
The Pacers almost died with that, and nearly shot themselves in the proverbial foot in the seconds prior, missing two free throws and almost throwing the ball away on the sideline before Bosh’s miss. The team hung on, but just barely, while working in the face of a game that saw James total more fouls and turnovers (eight) than points (seven).
A career game from George, a career-worst playoff contest from James, endless “extra-curricular activities,” as James referred to them, from Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (“He’s just competitive,” Vogel mentioned after the game, which is one way of putting it), and yet the Heat still had a chance. The team still could have toppled its top nemesis for the third postseason in a row had Bosh’s good look from “his corner” fallen.
The Heat didn’t make any massive adjustments entering Game 5, because they didn’t need to. Miami smartly anticipated the Indiana switch that put David West on Bosh and the rim-minding Roy Hibbert on Rashard Lewis defensively, and while Lewis’ best work didn’t exactly come in Hibbert’s face, the veteran long-range shooter did respond with a playoff career-high six 3-pointers in the loss, his first double-digit-scoring postseason contest since May 26, 2010.
“He’s got an absolute neon-green light,” Spoelstra said after the game.
Ray Allen shook off a bum hip that had him listed as “questionable” prior to the contest to score 15 points on five 3-pointers, and Wade still continued a fantastic postseason with 18 points, seven assists and eight rebounds in the loss.
Still, even if it was a slim margin of defeat, the Heat couldn’t overcome the near-loss of James, working only half of his team’s 48 minutes, missing eight of 10 shots along the way.
“Twenty-four minutes is not enough for me to make an imprint on the game,” James said after Game 5. “It sucks for me because I’m not able to make plays to help our team win.”
It may have been a personal low for LeBron, but his team was in sound standing with two chances to win it on an enemy’s court with just seconds left, rimming out another chance at a fourth consecutive conference title — for the time being, at least. It feels like it’s going to take at least a trio of career nights from various Pacers and another referee-addled no-show from LeBron if Indiana wants to win Game 6 on the road. The Heat did lose Game 5, they were beaten, but LeBron James’ team certainly remains unbowed.
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