The Heat has been searching for its attacking mind-set like a driver trying to find his misplaced set of car keys.
Was it under Roy Hibbert’s size 18 shoes? In David West’s shorts?
Heat players rummaged around the perimeter and poked around the outskirts of the lane during their hunt but too often conceded the paint to the Indiana Pacers’ big men.
On Thursday in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat finally decided to take the basketball to the basket and in so doing took it to the Pacers in an intense 90-79 victory that sends the series back to Indianapolis with Miami ahead 3-2 in games in the best-of-7 series.
Miami can secure its place in the NBA Finals if it again plays true to its trademark style. That is, LeBron James spinning around George Hill and banking a point-blank shot. That is, Dwyane Wade using the baseline as a springboard for a reverse layup. That is, James accelerating, magnetizing defenders and dishing to Udonis Haslem for a jumper from the corner.
Miami can chop down the Pacers and prepare for San Antonio by harassing Hibbert into turnovers and timeouts and trapping West into dead ends.
Or, Miami can drag this thing to a seventh game by allowing Hibbert to continue blooming into the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Miami can cause another wave of panic among its fans if it permits Indiana to impose its half-court will.
If Miami pushes the tempo, the Pacers bend like palm trees in a gust.
If Miami stays in attack mode, the Pacers don’t stand a chance.
James went ballistic as expected, scoring 30 points, grabbing eight rebounds and providing six assists.
The Heat looked passive early and was fortunate to trail by only four points at halftime. James gave his team a huddle pep talk so vociferous that TV censors had to fuzz out a few four-letter words lest the lip readers get offended.
“I let them know we had to play with a little more urgency — a lot more urgency,” James said. “I was aggressive. That’s what the playoffs are about: We got to show up every single possession offensively and defensively. You can’t just win on talent.”
Chris Andersen also got veins bulging with his violent bump and shove of Tyler Hansbrough. Official Marc Davis had to restrain Birdman with a bear hug as he continued to squawk.
The third quarter changed the tone. The Heat, namely James, stopped waiting. They don’t call it a championship plod. They call it a championship run. Miami’s players laced up their spikes, bolted out of the blocks and outscored Indiana 30-13.
“It’s getting back to our identity, applying pressure, covering ground,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s why this series is compelling. It’s two contrasting styles. We have to be committed.”
When Miami attacked, it went like this:
Haslem put Miami ahead with a hammer dunk. He bumped chests with Chris Bosh. The crowd roared.
“We really, really needed it, and the emotions just came out,” Haslem said.
Bosh rebounded an Indiana miss, then tossed a long pass to a wide-open James for routine dunk.
James plowed through Lance Stephenson, drew the foul.
James penetrated again, and flicked to Chalmers for a three-pointer.
Miami scored 60 points in the paint in its dominant Game 3 victory but only 30 in the Game 4 breakdown. On Thursday, Miami outscored Indiana in the epicenter, 34-32, and plenty of outside shots were generated by drives inside.
Miami, the worst rebounding team in the NBA, had been losing the battle of the boards to the best rebounding team in the NBA by an average of 11 per game. On Thursday, Miami was edged 33-32 on rebounds and matched Indiana with six offensive rebounds.
Hibbert’s hooks, fakes and soft-handed putbacks make him look like a dream center. Wilt Chamberlain is smiling. Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing are nodding. John Thompson is chuckling and Shaquille O’Neal is gushing from the broadcast booth.
We are watching the arrival of the kind of star the NBA is lacking these days. Bosh, who gives up 40 pounds and three inches to Hibbert, has had his hands full. Bosh’s effectiveness was limited again. He showed a flash of aggression but wound up with seven points and five rebounds. James also had to compensate for Wade’s underwhelming presence.
But Hibbert was held to two shots and four points in the fourth quarter as the Heat cut off his maneuvering room with double teams. Yes, the Heat attacked on defense, too, enabling the offense to rev up to full speed.
“We understand we have to play a near perfect game to beat this team,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said.
Miami doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to play its game with fierce devotion. It’s not complicated: Attack the basket like it’s a championship trophy.
“That’s what I came here for,” James said. “We have to go out and take it.”