This was more like it. Ten games in, the playoffs felt like they started for real for the Heat here Wednesday night. Welcome back, tension and doubt. Good to see you again, major challenge. We missed you, edge of seat.
Miami has itself a series — seriously.
Unqualified Milwaukee wasn’t any of that in a first-round Miami sweep.
Wounded, depleted Chicago really wasn’t in a five-game second round.
The Indiana Pacers look like a different story, like a team capable of standing up to the reigning NBA champions.
Not beating them, perhaps — not quite — but standing up to them and making this a tenacious series, an antidote to the anticlimax of the first two.
The NBA’s Eastern Conference finals began with a thriller won by Miami 103-102 in overtime on a LeBron James driving layup at the final buzzer Wednesday night.
He touched the ball with 2.2 seconds left.
“I knew I had time,” LeBron said calmly.
Indiana has two effective big men in David West and Roy Hibbert.
But Indiana doesn’t have LeBron, who finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Nor does Indy have anybody off the bench like Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who had 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting.
“It just came down to finding a way,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
New nickname for LeBron, an alternate to King:
“He has an all-everything role for us,” Spoelstra said.
Miami had trailed by six at the half with a 37-point effort that tied a club record for a postseason low. It seems this was the game Miami would lose, if it was to lose a game at all.
“The way to beat the Miami Heat is to beat them physically,” TV analyst Charles Barkley raved then. “This was the perfect half for Indiana.”
And this is why they play second halves, Chuck.
Miami appeared to rally for a narrow victory until the Pacers’ Paul George prayered in a long three-point basket with .7 seconds left to force overtime, sucking the party from the building in an instant.
LeBron would soon reignite it — thanks in part to a weird coaching decision by Indiana’s Frank Vogel that did not work.
Vogel removed 7-2 center Hibbert from the game in the closing seconds, removing the team’s rim defender.
LeBron went to work.
He drove to the less-guarded rim for a 101-99 lead with 10.8 seconds left, then his driving layup at the buzzer finished it.
You wonder which way Indiana will go now.
Will the Pacers be demoralized from having let slip a grand chance for a Game 1 upset?
Or did this convince them they can stand and play with Miami?
This was a different kind of test for the Heat, too, after the ease of the first two rounds.
Miami’s victories in the first two rounds had been by an average of 16 points, a parade of walkovers and waltzes.
This was closer to the kind of heavyweight bout that slugs its way into the late rounds with both fighters exhausted but still punching.
Somebody is going to fall.
Somebody is going to raise his glove in triumph.
The Bulls won Game 1 in Miami, but that was different. The Heat was rusty coming off a long break.
The Pacers, bigger and healthier than the Bulls and a better defensive team, didn’t quite win Game 1 but emerged from it as a bigger threat.
Chicago winning the series opener felt like an aberration, like nothing to really worry a Heat fan.
Indiana looms as more worrisome even in defeat.
This series, now, feels more like the kind of challenge Miami endured, and overcame, in the playoffs a year ago en route to that championship parade.
Last year, the Heat was surrounded by defeat and doubt, and overcame both.
Wednesday night almost brought a feeling of déjà vu.
In 2012, the Heat trailed these same Pacers two games to one in the second round, with Game 4 back in Indianapolis. Miami did not lose again.
Then the Heat trailed Boston three games to two in the Eastern finals. Miami did not lose again.
Then Oklahoma City won Game 1 of the NBA Finals. And Miami did not lose again.
The Heat kept rising to the challenge last postseason, rising, rising and rising.
It looked for the longest time Wednesday night that Miami would face a similar challenge, another deficit.
Chris Bosh was looking for a metaphor for what these playoffs are like. When you’re that tall, I guess you tend to think vertically.
“We’re trying to climb that mountain again,” he’d said in the buildup to this latest playoff series.
The Heat reached the summit a year ago but the climb was treacherous, buffeted by swirling winds and falling rocks.
This year’s climb was smooth. It might as well have been on an escalator.
That could still change. It almost did in a heart-stopping Game 1.
That mountain almost got steeper fast. The wind seemed to pick up. Rocks started falling.
Then came LeBron, the ultimate answer. The Way.
The final buzzer sounded, but you couldn’t even hear it.
The bedlam in the building drowned out the sound.