LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were not themselves for much of the night here Tuesday. They were frustrated, missing shots, missing answers, superstars turned mortal.
Oh, but James and Wade were themselves when it counted, when everything mattered, when one of them or both had to rescue Miami and the dream of a three-peat.
Emphatically, the Heat sealed it with an eight-point lead with 21.6 seconds left when Wade finished a LeBron pass with a two-handed backward dunk an exclamation point.
The victories are not always works of splendor and art. The games are not always won because LeBron put up huge numbers and fed the highlight reels. Sometimes the triumphs are inelegant. They come with wood burns and welts. They are nights not mastered, but simply survived.
Sometimes the result is only beautiful because you wanted it so much. You needed it so much.
Tuesday night was like that here for the Heat.
The game was ugly and flawed and it must have left fans back in Miami exhaling at the end more than high-fiving, but oh oh man it was everything the Heat needed.
Because it feels like it changed everything.
The Heat avoided the uncharted territory of a 2-0 playoff series deficit, which would have been a first in the Big 3 Era. Instead the series takes three days off and then plays the next two games back in Miami starting Saturday.
Look what changed with the Heats fourth-quarter rally:
Without James and Wades fourth-quarter heroics the narrative would have been how both of Miamis biggest stars had left the challenge unmet, shrinking on the stage.
With a two-game hole, the Heat would have faced three days of endless speculation, a national autopsy even as the body still breathed. Is the three-peat dead? Whats wrong with the Heat? Whos to blame? Will the Big 3 break up?
(We heard a glimpse of that even during Tuesdays game, when TV analyst Bill Simmons speculated at halftime that LeBron was having on off game because hed heard that Cleveland had won the NBA lottery again, implying James was all but plotting a departure from the soon-to-be-dethroned Heat to return to his hometown Cavaliers.)
Instead of all that noise over the next three days, now, Miami is seen as back in control.
Wade said Tuesdays late rally would not have happened the Big 3s first season together in 2010-11.
We panicked in situations like this, he said.
But Tuesday the Heat and its two biggest stars rose up when the moment demanded it.
This was just about how bad do we want it, said Wade afterward. It wasnt about Xs and Os.
The two combined for 22 of their 44 points in the fourth quarter, when Miami trailed before seizing a teetering game and series. They led a 16-4 closing run that siphoned the noise from the Pacers arena. They scored all but three of Miamis 25 fourth-quarter points.
We know theyre great, great players, Pacers coach Frank Vogel said of the two who had just beaten him. Thats what we expect from those guys.
Late in the Game 1 loss, captain Udonis Haslem had gathered LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh during a timeout and told them: This is the Eastern Conference finals. Time to start acting like it!
Bosh mustnt have been listening, with another quiet game.
But LeBron and Wade took that imperative to heart in that fourth-quarter whirlwind.
I was able to attack and get my guys smokin, said James.
Teams of the highest stature in any sport do not attain that tier just on statistics or flare. It isnt only the measurables that elevate you. Its the moments. It is those times when the stage is great, the pressure is greater, and somebody must be the greatest.
The Heat was that in the fourth quarter, when everything mattered. When LeBron and Wade raised their hands.
With 4:19 to play James took a hard foul by David West and converted both free throws for a 76-75 Heat lead that stood up. He made both foul shots as the crowd chanted, Flopper! Flopper!
James then stole a pass and missed a layup, but Wade was there for the follow-up dunk.
Wade then hit two field goals in a row.
Then came Wades two-handed dunk, backward because the game had by then been won, the crowd knocked silent.
Thats what its about, James said of his and his running mates fourth quarter. We were flying around
With Tuesdays clutch victory, Miami in the Big 3 Era is now 5-0 in Game 2s after losing a series opener. And 8-0 immediately following a playoff loss of 11 points or more.
We understood the urgency of a response, coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The coach tends to speak in dramatic prose. This night, the drama was fitting. Miami needed this.
The heat was on LeBron. (When isnt it?)
Ive got to do a little more, hed said.
I think the last time James said that before a game he dropped 49 on Brooklyn.
What does a little more from James mean?
He will shoulder everything, the Pacers Paul George had predicted.
Well, James would neither score in the 40s nor take on the everything role he might have, but he was everything Miami needed, and so was Wade.
The Heat now has not lost consecutive playoff games since the 2012 conference finals, a span of 40 postseason games.
They kept that streak alive because they did everything a little better than they had in Game 1 on Sunday.
They made 8 of 20 three-pointers after having made only 6 of 23.
They took more free throws (18 to 15) after a 37-15 disadvantage.
They were nearly even in rebounding (41-38) after a big second half on the boards thanks largely to Chris Birdman Andersen. They also got 11 points off the bench from Norris Cole, along with some great late defense on Lance Stephenson.
They defended much, much better, limiting the Pacers to 40 percent shooting including 4 for 16 by Paul George exhausted from chasing LeBron all night.
Its amazing, isnt it, what a little desperation and a lot of defense can do for the complexion of an NBA playoff series.
A lot of LeBron and Wade at just the right time doesnt hurt, either.