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MIAMI – The only thing more intimidating than LeBron James in control is LeBron James in a controlled fury.
The best player in basketball responded to the Indiana Pacers' resident housefly, Lance Stephenson, with an emphatic swat on Friday, racing his Miami Heat past Indiana with an unsightly 117-92 stomping to finish the Eastern Conference finals in six games. James greeted Stephenson in the first quarter of the win with a hand to the face, an elbow to the shoulder and a shoulder to the jaw on his way to the rim. He followed that with his lethal array of soft jumpers and touch passes, even rejecting a George Hill layup in a highlight that cemented the game before 9:30 p.m. local time.
When Stephenson, who infamously blew into James' ear in Game 5, put his palm on James' beard in the first quarter, the four-time MVP stood up, faced his foil, and said, "Hey, yo, you touch my face one more time …."
You can figure out the rest.
Stephenson would get out of James' face and the dysfunctional Pacers are now out of Miami's way. James and his teammates are back in the NBA Finals for a fourth straight time – a feat rarely done in professional sports. The Big Three – James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – are unbeaten in clinching games at home since they arrived here.
What makes the team even more fearsome is that it's peaking now – throttling higher on its blend of execution and emotion, and just plain throttling opponents. This is a machine now, and it is accelerating.
"We know we can impose our will," Wade said. "A few years ago, we were unsure."
The Heat's Game 5 loss in Indianapolis was aggravating to the two-time defending NBA champions. "We had a very angry group yesterday when we met for practice," said head coach Erik Spoelstra. Shane Battier seconded it: "We were as focused as I've seen in a long time."
The focus stayed, even when Stephenson started "being himself," in the words of Norris Cole, who got a slap to the face from the Pacers' irritant, resulting in a flagrant foul for Stephenson. Cole went down to the court for several minutes and it looked like the game would devolve into a brawl, but James wouldn't have any chaos. When Udonis Haslem started jawing at Stephenson, going so far as to threaten him from the bench, James restrained his longtime teammate, pushing him back and getting in between Haslem and Stephenson. James later said the slap was "uncalled for," but explained, "I guess I know what the bigger picture is."
James has indeed learned what the bigger picture is. He is the bigger picture.
Later in the game, James got in Cole's face and reminded him, "We have another round."
It felt like the entire capacity crowd here wanted to take a swing at Stephenson, but James redirected all the energy into the building into irrepressible basketball. It was remarkable to see the Heat grow in the moment while the Pacers wilted.
The destruction was clear in the Pacers' locker room after the game. Stephenson said he didn't remember the face wash of James or what was said. He insisted he didn't intend to hit Cole in the face even though, "I know it looked bad." He said he had no regrets – three times, in fact.
In the other corner of the room, Roy Hibbert sat crumpled in a folding chair, his shoulders curved forward and his head down. He looked both despondent and dilapidated. Asked if it's getting more difficult to beat the Heat with every passing year, he could say only, "They're a good team. They execute."
In his postgame news conference, Paul George – who was as absent in Game 6 as he was omnipresent in Game 5 – said, "I don't know" when asked if he wanted Stephenson back on his team. His comments, when taken in the full context of his reply, aren't nearly as harsh as they seem. But it's another example of a team that can't figure out what to say together, let alone how to play together.
The Pacers' dissolution makes the Heat's resilience more impressive. Miami's players have held fast in a city of distractions and a league of distractions. There are three huge photos of Heat players beyond the team's locker room door, and two of them – one of Wade and one of Haslem – prominently feature rivulets of blood. The gashes end up making the opponent weaker.
"We wanted to win this very badly," Battier said. "Very badly. For multiple reasons." Battier said that was clear in the minutes before the game began. Nothing was said in the locker room. "Didn't need to," he said.
It was Battier of all people who came the closest to retaliating verbally for all the obnoxiousness the Pacers slung throughout the series. He said he was looking forward to the team's Finals opponent, whether San Antonio or Oklahoma City, being "about basketball" rather than "the chicanery we faced."
You know how to gauge the Heat's maturity when the angriest postgame word uttered is "chicanery."
The Heat players are beyond pettiness. They're beyond the Pacers. They're simply beyond. They are bound for their fourth straight Finals, and although James spreads credit like he spreads the ball around, he is the emotional engine – hot but never overheated.
"He's always the most intense when the moment is biggest," Cole said. "That's what he does."
James can't be slowed with "chicanery." He can't be slowed with strategy. It's uncertain whether his controlled fury can be slowed at all.