It took a do-or-die Game 7 to reincarnate the Big 3.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh won the referendum on their alliance Monday by shunting aside the Indiana Pacers 99-76 and advancing to their third consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals.
Harmony was restored for the trio that had seemed out of tune, out of synch and out of answers for most of a series that tested the entire premise of their grand plan to win multiple titles.
Backed to the edge of a cliff, the superfriends came out firing. They needed the challenge of a must-win game to find their groove. The whiff of failure revived them like smelling salts.
James promised to lead his struggling mates and he did just that, crooking a finger here, delivering a pass there and lifting the Heat from Game 6 disarray to a chance at a championship repeat starting Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs.
James, as reliable and drenching as June thunderstorms in his adopted hometown, was again majestic, scoring 32 points and shutting down Paul George.
But the key to vanquishing the Pacers and the most suffocating defense in the NBA was the return of Wade and Bosh, who had been maddeningly passive and strangely unproductive of late.
They’ve got to play even better if Miami is to defeat the Spurs.
Wade disregarded self-doubt about his bruised right knee and soared — if not to his usual altitude at least high enough to score 21 points and collect a game-high nine rebounds.
In the fourth quarter, as the Heat ran away from the Pacers, James drove and handed the ball off to Wade, who pumped and stayed suspended in midair for the basket. Then Wade did what he hasn’t done for too long: He celebrated. He skipped across the court with his familiar springy step and raised his arms to egg on fans, who were gratefully exuberant.
He wasn’t smiling. Not yet.
But the reports of his washed-up twilight had been greatly exaggerated.
It wasn’t a surprise that the Heat dispatched the Pacers. After all, Miami was in a Game 7 situation last year against the Celtics, and the young Pacers did not have that well of faith to draw upon. But there was plenty of delayed gratification in this rugged series during which Indiana tested Miami, even without its best player, the injured Danny Granger.
Bosh was a bystander in Game 6, when the Heat was outscored in the paint by 20 points and outrebounded by 20. Ridiculous numbers that made the defending champs look sternly in the mirror. The Big 3 was reduced to the King and the Other 2.
Bosh, too, found his way back Monday, but not all the way. When he followed a field goal with a three-pointer midway through the second quarter, Indiana grabbed a timeout as he crowed and preened.
Bosh’s performance remains problematic with Tim Duncan on deck. He finished with eight rebounds but shot only 3 for 13 for nine points. That’s a total of 28 points in the last four games. Finally, though, he dug into the scrum down low and mixed it up with 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, limited to a paltry two shots in the first half.
It was encouraging to see James, Wade and Bosh working together again to get each other the ball where they like it, and creating offense from defense.
“They had that killer instinct,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Spectacular ball movement. Relentless crashing the boards. Greater know-how.”
Wade, held to 10 points in both Games 5 and 6, looked like his old self in the third quarter when he put back his own miss. It was a welcome offensive rebound, a rare instance of the Heat beating Indiana at its own game. Wade ended his career-long streak of 12 games without scoring a minimum of 20 points.
“I came out with a different mind-set,” Wade said. “I got a lot of opportunities. My confidence just kept growing.”
It was crucial to get Wade and Bosh into the flow early. They have spent too much time loitering around the periphery of the action.
Through the first six games Wade seemed reluctant to engage in his customary kamikaze attacks. Just when you expected him to stab into the lane he’d back off. Just when you anticipated a high-wire trick, he dished. Just when you figured he’d launch over grasping hands, he stalled.
Wade was doing the “little things,” but that’s a menial job for an All-Star. He was becoming a liability on offense.
James made sure Wade took the Heat’s first shot, and he missed, but made two of his next three. He and Bosh took a combined eight shots before James attempted his first.
Wade was determined to drive rather than distribute. He drew Hibbert’s third and fourth fouls and sank all four free throws.
Their aggressive attitude enabled the Heat to bulldoze despite continued below-par accuracy. The Heat pushed the tempo, forced turnovers, generated more shots and got to the free throw line 38 times.
The Heat won’t face the same frontcourt matchup discrepancy and canopy defense against the Spurs, but it will face a much more savvy team, a team that knows exactly how to win multiple titles, and a very hot Tony Parker. The turnover gifts won’t be there for the taking.
“When you count Dwyane out, he has an uncanny way in big games of getting bigger, and he seems like he’s 6-10,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Look at these bright lights. These were harrowing moments, and great moments.”
The lights get brighter in the NBA Finals, and Wade and Bosh can’t disappear again. The Pacers did the Heat a favor by forcing the best out of the Big 3, who didn’t join forces to finish in second place.