LeBron James grabbed a seat on Miami’s bench, lowered his head and stared down at the floor.
The Heat are in a hole.
Roy Hibbert had 19 points and 18 rebounds, George Hill scored 20 and Danny Granger 17 as the Pacers, showing more balance, toughness and togetherness than favored Miami, throttled the malfunctioning Heat 94-75 on Thursday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Overlooked during the regular season and given little chance to upset the reigning East champions, the Pacers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Game 4 is Sunday at raucous Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
James scored 22 — 16 in the first half before wearing down — and Mario Chalmers added 25 for Miami. However, Dwyane Wade, banged up and possibly slowed by a more serious injury, scored only five on 2-of-13 shooting for the Heat, already missing forward Chris Bosh because of a strained abdominal muscle and not expected to return for this series.
”It’s obvious he wasn’t himself.” James said of Wade. ”Does he want to play better? Of course. He’s one of the best players in the world.”
Wade didn’t play like one and he also had an angry exchange during a timeout in the third quarter with coach Erik Spoelstra, who dismissed it as a heat-of-battle incident.
”That happens,” Spoelstra said. ”Anybody that has been part of a team or has been a coach or been a player, you have no idea how often things like that happen. That was during a very emotional part of the game. We were getting our butt kicked. Those exchanges happen all the time during the course of an NBA season.
”There’s going to be a lot of times where guys say something, you don’t like it. You get over it and you move on. We’re all connected. Dwyane and I have been together for a long time, a long time. We’ve been through basically everything. A lot of different roles, a lot of different teams. That really is nothing. That is the least of our concern. That type of fire, shoot, that’s good. That’s the least of our concerns. Our concern is getting for Sunday.”
Wade wouldn’t discuss his dispute with Spoelstra.
Indiana outscored Miami 51-32 in the second half, when the Pacers could do no wrong.
They made big shots, challenged everything the Heat tossed in the air and didn’t back down from a Miami team that appeared poised to make an easy run to the NBA finals after top-seeded Chicago lost Derrick Rose and was eliminated in the first round.
The Pacers, though, have other plans.
In the second half, Indiana forward David West flung James to the floor in the lane, and Granger later got in the superstar’s face after a foul on a breakaway. After winning Game 2 in South Florida by three points, the Pacers wanted to show that win was no fluke and that they’re for real.
They’re two wins from tilting the balance of power in the East.
”We’re certainly happy with the win,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. ”But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Vogel’s pregame message to his team: ”Keep your edge, and enhance your edge.”
Enhance, they did.
Hibbert controlled the glass, roaming the lane on both ends and finishing with five blocks.
”My primary focus is defense, defense, defense,” he said. ”I embrace that role and let the offense come to me. Them being one and done, that’s what we talked about in the huddle,” he said. ”One shot and they’re done.”
Two more losses and the Heat are done.
With his team down 20 in the closing minutes, Spoelstra waved the white flag and pulled out first Wade, then James, who quickly removed his headband as he got to the bench and then pulled out the mouthpiece inscripted with XVI, the Roman numeral for 16 or the number of wins it takes to get a championship.
When the final horn sounded, the three-time MVP quickly exited the floor.
”When you lose a game like that, all you try to take it away and move on to the next one,” James said. ”They’re playing some good basketball. We’re playing pretty good defense on them. We’re not scoring the ball.”
Indiana busted open a grind-it-out game with a 17-3 run in the third quarter, doing it with an inside-outside attack that had the Heat wondering what was coming next.
Pushed by a rocking home crowd wearing ”Gold Swagger” T-shirts and chanting ”Beat The Heat” every chance they could, the Pacers pushed their lead to 69-55 after three and then held off one brief run by the Heat in the fourth quarter.
Behind Miami’s bench, owner Micky Arison and team president Pat Riley looked on in disbelief.
Despite playing almost 21 minutes and exerting himself on defense, James had enough energy to throw down a vicious left-handed dunk in the final minute of the first half, pulling the Heat even at 43-all. He looked back at the Miami bench as if to say, ”How about a little help out here?”
He was doing it all.
Wade, on the other hand, was lost.
He missed all five field-goal attempts, made two turnovers and ran around like a first-time rookie and not a superstar playing in his 95th career postseason game.
Wade finally made his first field goal with 10:22 left in the third to put Miami up 47-45, but the Pacers went on a 10-1 run with Granger dropping a 3-pointer in front of the Heat bench to make it 55-48 and then playfully skipping down the sideline as Miami called a timeout.
With Bosh out, rehabbing in Florida and doubtful to be back at any point in this series, Spoelstra said ”everything is out on the table. Everyone has to be ready.”
He wasn’t kidding.
Spoelstra made a dramatic change to his starting lineup, putting Shane Battier at power forward and using bench-riding center Dexter Pittman in place of Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf in the first five along with James, Wade and Chalmers — a group he played together for just nine minutes during the regular season.
The moves smelled of desperation and maybe Spoelstra sensed his team was in more trouble than he wanted to admit.
And when the Pacers jumped to an 11-2 lead, amping up an already frenzied Indiana crowd, it appeared Miami was indeed in danger of dropping a second straight game.
However, with James leading the charge, the Heat responded by closing the first quarter on a 24-6 tear.
James and Wade were relaxed following the Heat’s morning shootaround. There wasn’t a hint of panic in either of their voices and they exuded been-here-done-that attitudes.
James downplayed the idea that he and his teammates would need to maintain some kind of ”edge” to be best prepared for a pivotal Game 3 many felt would tilt the series.
”It’s the postseason,” said James, playing in his 100th postseason game. ”There’s no secrets about an edge or not having an edge. It’s the postseason. You have to be ready and approach every possession as if it’s the last. I’m always going to have an edge, so that’s not going to change.”
Well, things have changed.
Notes: The Heat are 5 for 42 on 3-pointers in the series. … Miami’s 75 points matched a low in these playoffs. … Indiana outrebounded Miami 52-36. … The Heat managed just 12 points in the third quarter. … Former Pacers center Rik Smits attended the game and got a huge cheer when he was shown on the scoreboard.