INDIANAPOLIS -- LeBron James was erased from this game when the Heat needed him most, with the result wobbling and 56 seconds to play. He fouled out, officially. To most neutral eyes he fouled out on an egregiously bad call on a pick he’d set against Lance Stephenson.
Shakily borderline calls like that almost never get whistled against a superstar of that stature at a moment like that. And James does not foul out. He is careful with that. Tuesday marked only the second time in 128 career playoffs games that he did foul out.
“I didn’t believe it was a foul,” James said.
Don’t make this loss about that call, though, even as the sight of LeBron on the bench late will be the focal point of so much gnashing chatter.
Miami did not lose 99-92 because of that call.
This Eastern Conference finals is now tied 2-2 but not because one referee made a split-second decision that he’ll probably regret.
Sometimes we complicate things too much in sports, looking so hard for nuance or subtlety (or a bad call to blame) that we miss what’s obvious. Let’s not do that here. Let’s just say this series is all square primarily because Miami shot the ball awfully and because the Big 3 wasn’t big enough. Not this time.
They came together like a tour de force, a basketball galaxy, and Miami lavished them with an arena celebration before they’d even played a game together. They became the biggest thing in sports, then they became champions.
And so what happened here Tuesday was so rare it feels weird just to type the words.
The Big 3 stunk – well, LeBron did only against his highest of all standards.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh pretty much did in general.
Miami shot only 39 percent and was out-rebounded by 49-30, dominated and muscled, and the Big 3 did not do enough to prevent it or steer the result.
All three were shades of below average to much worse than that.
Blame the law of averages. Credit the desperate Pacers. Whatever. The stars did not align for Miami, and so this thing is tied now heading back to South Florida for Game 5 Thursday night.
Nobody played particularly well against the desperate Pacers. Even magic-genie Chris (Birdman) Andersen hardly left the cage.
We are spoiled, though. It is the Big 3 who are looked to carry and lift. It doesn’t have to be all of them.
But it can’t be none of them.
Not when the stakes reach the conference finals. Not when a repeat championship and even a dynasty are dreamed of.
LeBron, four-time league MVP, the best, so often this team’s savior, so often so clutch late, shot only 8-for-18 for a modest (for him) 24 points. His rebound and assist totals also were below his averages. Guarded mostly this night by Stephenson, James was not effective in the low-post as he’d been the previous game, only 1-for-6 in close, so he shot mostly jumpers, and mostly missed. Then there was the foul-out that plucked him from the game.
Wade, still not himself on that bruised right knee, shot a miserable 5-for-15 and scored 16 points – his ninth straight postseason game below 20. The traveling call against him for a turnover in the final minute was costly.
And Bosh shot 1-for-6 with a mere seven points and two rebounds, one of those periodic quiet and disquieting Bosh performances that accentuate the fact his surname ends with “Shhh.”
Wade and Bosh also were limited somewhat by the same foul trouble that hindered LeBron.
The Heat were off from the start on the offensive end – the opposite of that purring engine of one game earlier, with that 70-point, one-turnover first half that just buried Indiana.
Miami fell behind 11-0, recovering from that to lead as late as 89-86. But the shooting and flow never found their rhythm.
“Whenever everything is against you,” philosopher Birdman Andersen had noted the day before, “it shows what kind of mental toughness you have.”
It isn’t always bout that, though.
More often it’s what coach Erik Spoelstra likes to say when he describes basketball as fundamentally “a game of makes and misses.”
The Heat were missing too much, and that includes their three stars.
“We had an opportunity to control this series,” Spoelstra said.
Yes, a Game 4 victory for a 3-1 lead would have effectively ended this thing. With the next game and two of the last three in Miami, the series would have all but been over and done, over and won.
Sights could have swiveled to San Antonio and the NBA Finals, not officially, of course, but for all practical purposes.
I still like Miami’s chances. The next game and two of the last three are at home.
I still like Miami’s chances even more because the Big 3 will bounce back.
They have earned the right to have that qualify as a near-certainty.
LeBron, who has been wearing a black ballcap here that reads, simply, US VERSUS THEM, will be motivated by the anger of his dubious foul-out. Who doesn’t think he’ll have a huge game Thursday?
Bosh’s bounce-back is not as bankable, but how can he be much worse than he was Tuesday?
As for D-Wade, we keep waiting.
Wade’s latest Instagram post was a photo of himself with the following overlaid quote: “Whenever there is a big game and people don’t think I can do it, I always play my hardest, and now it has become a part of me.”
This was a big game. He played the hardest his knee would allow, but he still shot 5-for-15.
With LeBron off his game and fouling out late and Bosh all but invisible, this would have been the perfect night for a heroic Wade to dust off his vintage self.
Maybe next time.
Meanwhile, there was perspective even in defeat as James and Wade both wore sneakers inscribed with “Live Like Bella,” in honor of Bella Rodriguez-Torres, the 10-year-old Miami girl who passed away Tuesday after a six-year fight with cancer.
Live Like Bella was the slogan her parents had created. The story touched the Heat’s two biggest stars.
It’s very sad. It’s very sad,” James said afterward. “I understand that this game is so magnified, and that this is the talk of a lot of people. But this game is just basketball.”