LeBron James opened the fourth quarter of Wednesday night's marquee nationally televised Eastern Conference matchup with the Indiana Pacers by knocking down a 3-pointer to extend the Miami Heat's lead to seven points at 70-63. After the Pacers responded with a couple of buckets and stops, the Bankers Life Fieldhouse faithful started to get back into it; all they needed was something to push them over the top an into a full-on frenzy.
Paul George, please pick up the white courtesy phone:
After a Rashard Lewis 3-pointer went wanting, George took the ball in the backcourt and pushed it up the floor. When James stepped up to meet him at the 3-point line, George quickly dribbled right to left between his legs, got low and made his way around the corner into the paint. With James on his hip and Roy Hibbert diverting Heat rim-protector Chris Andersen away from the tin, George had a sliver of a crack of a space to make his way to the basket. He did so — with authority — to cut Miami's lead to one point and prompt Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra to call a timeout.
While the explosion called to mind one of George's many highlight-reel plays from the two teams' seven-game 2013 Eastern Conference finals battle — most notably his huge slams on Birdman in Game 2 and on Chris Bosh in Game 6 — one loud highlight didn't settle the score between the two top teams in the East. Indiana had to get over the hump and tamp down the two-time-defending NBA champions, which they did on the strength of a defense that held Miami without a field goal for nearly seven minutes between James' quarter-opening 3-pointer at the 11:42 mark and another LeBron long ball with 4:53 remaining.
It was a hard-fought nip-and-tuck battle throughout, featuring 43 personal fouls, 50 free throws, 15 lead changes and seven ties, but come the end of the fourth quarter, the Pacers had powered through adversity (including the mid-period ejection of mercurial shooting guard Lance Stephenson) to hang on for an 84-83 win over the Heat, improving their record to 52-20 and extending their lead over Miami for the top spot in the Eastern Conference to three games.
Roy Hibbert added 21 points, four rebounds and one steal, and came back from being dropped by an elbow on a James drive to play the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter and using his length to bother a final-minute 3-point attempt by Chris Bosh that went awry, helping the Pacers hold on for the win, which clinched their second straight Central Division title.
James was a force, scoring a game-high 38 points on 11 for 19 shooting with eight rebounds and five assists with top-drawer perimeter stopper George stuck to him all night. George held his own, though, finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals in 41 1/2 minutes to help hand the Heat their eighth loss in their last 13 games. More importantly from the Pacers' perspective, though, landing a win over the rival Heat — one that gives them a 2-1 lead in the season series, with the fourth and final meeting between the two squads coming in Miami on April 11 — helps get rid of the sour taste of consecutive losses to the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls, and maybe restores a bit of the rhythm that made Frank Vogel's crew so nasty earlier in the season.
"I think we had fun," George told reporters after the game. "We brought back fun tonight."
Well, that one thing you did sure looked fun, Paul. And, thanks to the magic of microphones, we can tell that it sounded fun, too:
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