The most obvious and effective way to contain the Miami Heat is to remove LeBron James from the equation — easier said than done, considering that the four-time MVP rarely takes a night off, literally or figuratively, when his team needs him most.
On Wednesday night, we learned what man is most adept at removing LeBron James from the equation — LeBron James. And the Indiana Pacers were more than happy to accept the gift.
With a chance to close out the Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, James spent the majority of the night banished to the bench with foul trouble. And when the clock ticked to zero, James had the lowest-scoring playoff game of his career and the Pacers had a 93-90 win that delayed Miami’s fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals for at least another couple nights.
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Yet in victory we find the most disturbing detail of all about these Pacers. If Indiana wasn’t going to win Game 5 — when LeBron played just 13:53 over the first three quarters and finished with nearly as many personal fouls (five) as points (seven) — it wasn’t going to win any game against the two-time defending champs. But in winning by only three points, Indiana faces a troubling reality that it struggled to the end to put Miami away despite the fact that James spent most of the game in his warm-ups.
But when you’ve got your back to the wall like the Pacers still do, you take your wins however you can get them, and there will certainly be no complaints from Indiana or its fans between Games 5 and 6, even if Wednesday’s win did leave plenty of room for improvement.
Takeaway: It probably sounds like beating a dead horse, but the story of the Pacers’ win has to be the absence of LeBron, who played just 24:21 in the game. Before Wednesday, James had never played less than 31 minutes in a playoff game, and in each of the six times he played 35 minutes or less, James’ relative inactivity was due to a Heat or Cavs blowout, not foul trouble for the game’s best player. In fact, James had five or more fouls in just 10 playoff games in his career before Wednesday, so his five fouls in Game 5 truly did represent an uncommon occurrence — and should make for some interesting fodder for those who are still somehow convinced that the NBA is rigged. With James playing his normal full complement of minutes, one has to imagine Miami doesn’t find itself subbing in Michael Beasley in the third quarter on the heels of a crucial stretch that saw the Heat blow an 11-point lead with LeBron on the bench.
When LeBron checked out with his fifth foul with 8:34 left in the third, Miami led 45-37, and that lead jumped to 48-37 on a Rashard Lewis 3 on the next Heat possession. But over the next 9:25, Indiana went on a 31-11 run, shooting 11 of 19 in that span while the Heat hit just four of their 12 shots. Miami was sloppy during that Pacers rally, turning the ball over six times, and Paul George was able to do as he pleased, scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, while David West also added nine points on a perfect 4-of-4 mark from the floor while LeBron was out. Is it possible that all of that could have still happened with James in the game? Sure, and Indy definitely deserves some credit for capitalizing on Miami’s mistakes. But in an elimination game, and with a double-digit lead, it seems far more likely that James would have helped Miami put its collective foot on the Pacers’ throat instead.
Star Review: Say this about George: As absent as he’s been for certain stretches of these playoffs, he couldn’t have played a better game when the Pacers needed him most in Game 5. George scored 37 points on Wednesday, his highest point total since Game 4 of the conference semifinals against Washington, and while his missed free throw with 15 seconds left in the game and his team up by one put his team in a hairy position late, the most impressive part of George’s sublime performance was the timing of his best quarter of the series. After scoring just 16 points in the first three quarters and hitting just 2 of 9 3s in that span, George was an absolute animal in the fourth quarter as Miami made its last-ditch run, adding 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, including a 3-of-5 mark from 3 — and including contested 3s with 1:45 and 46 seconds to go, respectively, each to put the Pacers back on top by four points. Outside of George, West (19 points and nine rebounds) and Roy Hibbert (10 points and 13 rebounds) both carried their weight on the front line, while the backcourt ebbed and flowed, just as it has all series long. And though the Pacers bench was largely ineffective, combining for just six points all game, it was kind of tough to blame them, as Indiana coach Frank Vogel rode his starters almost exclusively in the second half.
On the other side, it was Dwyane Wade (18 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) and Chris Bosh (20 points and 10 rebounds) who led the way for Miami, but certainly Bosh is regretting his missed corner 3 that would have given the Heat the lead with 4 seconds left in the game. A couple guys who didn’t have trouble finding the net from distance, however, were the Heat’s resident old folks, 38-year-old Ray Allen and 34-year-old Rashard Lewis, who combined for nine 3s on 15 attempts in the loss, including two 3s by Lewis in the final 2:06, each of which cut the Pacers lead to one point. In the 24:21 that LeBron was able to play, he was mostly ineffective, contributing just seven points on 2-of-10 shooting. And while that’s troubling, given the gravity of the game he was playing, there’s absolutely something to be said for him not really ever being able to get into a groove.
Looking Ahead: Game 6, at Miami, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET
What To Look For: I know I wrote after Game 4 that I anticipated an epic performance from LeBron in Game 5, but this time, when I say I think he’s due to blow up in Game 6, I really mean it! (We sportswriters, always making excuses, eh?) I thought that James’ competitive nature would be an asset on Wednesday, but his enthusiasm ended up working against him, instead. That being said, it’s tough to fathom James encountering the same difficulties just staying on the court for a second game in a row — especially playing at home. There’s probably a legitimate thought that just having LeBron back to normal in Game 6 will be enough to put Indiana away, so anything beyond that will be a treat for a Miami team that really doesn’t want to have to make a return trip to Indianapolis with its season on the line.
And so accordingly, the key for Indiana to make Game 7 a reality will be to take advantage of whatever weakness the Heat show in Game 6. There’s no way of knowing what that shortcoming will be going in, but the Pacers have got to be able to recognize it and exploit it when they see it. Maybe LeBron does get in foul trouble again, or maybe Bosh goes back to struggling from 3, or maybe Wade seems a step slow — whatever the issue is, Indiana has to make the champs pay if it wants a shot at yet another Houdini-esque playoff escape. Furthermore, no one for the Pacers can afford to take the night off, as we’ve seen so many times over the course of these playoffs. If Hibbert decides to turn in another scoreless game, or Lance Stephenson once again fails to live up to his own exceptionally high expectations for himself, or George can’t find a rhythm offensively, the Pacers are as good as done. Indiana has to be virtually perfect from here on out to win this series, and as long as the Pacers understand that and put their best effort forward, they’ll at least give themselves a chance.