Just when it looked as if the Indiana Pacers might have buried the memory of their mysterious bouts of performance dysfunction, they were reminded of an equally unpleasant reality of their Eastern Conference semifinal against Miami.
LeBron James, the best player in the world, plays for the other guys. And his sidekick, Dwyane Wade, seems to be at his healthiest after missing 28 games during the regular season.
After allowing others on both teams to make signature plays over three quarters, James erupted in the fourth for 12 of his 22 points, and Wade added 10 of his team-high 23 in carrying the Heat to a series-leveling 87-83 victory over the Pacers in Game 2 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Game 3 will be played Saturday in Miami.
With the game in the balance, James and Wade combined to score 20 consecutive points, with James erupting for nine straight and setting up two more with a steal during an 11-2 run that turned a 73-69 Pacers lead into an 80-75 deficit with 3:17 to play.
"That's why they're the $100 million guys," said the Heat's backup point guard, Norris Cole, who had 11 points and contributed harassing defense as the Heat held the Pacers to 40 percent shooting.
After Indianapolis's day got off to a deflating start with the denial of the city's bid for the 2018 Super Bowl, James made it a total washout with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists, shredding Indiana's normally stout defense in almost every imaginable way in the second half.
He penetrated the lane and kicked the ball out to open jump shooters. He slipped away from defenders and moved without the ball for uncontested layups. He hit spirit-crushing jumpers and made the biggest steal of the game, with a strip of George Hill that culminated with Wade's putting back James' missed layup for that 80-75 lead.
"It was even the whole game, but then LeBron stepped up and made big plays," said the Pacers' Lance Stephenson, who was the best player on the floor for three quarters but scored just two of his 25 points in the fourth.
James wanted to talk more about Miami's collective defense, an underpublicized trademark during its run to consecutive championships and three straight NBA finals.
Referring to the Game 1 defeat, he said: "We had a lot of breakdowns, a little bit of everything. We understand that. We corrected our mistakes. That's the great thing about this team. We own up to what we did, and then we come out and make it happen."
No team can face a must-win situation in a playoff series before it has played a game at home, and James played down the fear of the possibility of a two-game deficit. It was just basic math, he said, after falling behind from the start.
"You come out and play a better game than you did last time," he said. "Leave it all on the floor."
The Pacers, conversely, were determined to hang onto the home-court advantage they secured during the final week of the regular season after they had surrendered what had been a season-long hold on the conference's top seed. Miami helped with a 3-6 April record that included home-court losses to Minnesota and Brooklyn and road failures at Atlanta and Washington.
The game was tough and tense, resembling the seven-game war of attrition the teams played in the conference final last season. The fourth quarter had two sequences that made everyone wince. In the first, Paul George stripped Wade, whose left knee collided with George's head as he scrambled for the loose ball. George was cleared to continue, but after the game, he complained of blurry vision and said he would be re-examined before Game 3.
Minutes after that collision, as James took over the game, he took a bounce pass from Wade and went in for a layup, only to be hammered out of bounds, face down, by David West. James was motionless for a few seconds but then picked his head up, slapped five with a fan and hit two free throws.
"It's a hotly contested series," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You just have to keep on it, stay with it."
The matchup problems caused by the Pacers in the frontcourt were apparent in Game 1, and Spoelstra conceded the point when he put Udonis Haslem in his starting lineup - just as his Pacers counterpart, Frank Vogel, had predicted.
It looked good for the Pacers early as they controlled the boards and the tempo. One sequence illustrated Indiana at its grind-it-out best, beginning with George's missed 16-foot jump shot.
Roy Hibbert tapped the rebound out, and George launched another jumper, this time missing from 17 feet. Again Hibbert got a hand on the ball, leading to Stephenson's nailing a 19-foot pullup. When George scored on the break next time down, the Pacers had an 18-10 lead with about 5 minutes left in the quarter.
But the danger of making bold statements about the Pacers has long been tied to their penchant for scoring droughts. They had one in the second quarter that allowed the Heat to build an eight-point lead, and they went cold at the worst possible time in the fourth quarter, with Stephenson unable to sustain his play and George, their best player, en route to 4-for-16 shooting.
Sitting alongside James in the interview room, Wade spoke of all the Heat had learned their first season together when, he said, they panicked and lost late leads to the Dallas Mavericks in the finals.
"Winning time," he called those pressurized fourth-quarter moments, while James nodded in agreement.
New York Times