There was a horrific start at the beginning of the game and a nightmare scenario at the start of the final quarter.
None of it mattered.
The Heat dominated when it counted on Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals and defeated the Indiana Pacers 99-87 to take a 2-1 lead in its best-of-7 series. The Heat trailed by 15 points in the first half but rallied to tie the franchise’s second largest postseason comeback. There was a scary moment at the end of the third quarter when LeBron James limped into the Heat’s locker room, but he returned to the court in the fourth quarter and helped lead a dominant final period.
Despite his injury scare, James led the Heat with 26 points and shot 9 of 14 from the field to go along with five rebounds and seven assists. He was 7 of 9 from the free-throw line and 1 of 2 from three-point range.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“We’re a confident group,” James said. “We don’t panic.”
A 19-footer by James gave the Heat a 94-82 lead with 3:16 to play. Chris Bosh then forced a turnover and Ray Allen delivered a three-pointer seconds later. Allen was 4 of 4 from three-point range in the fourth quarter and finished with 16 points.
“Despite how we started, for 2 ½, three quarters you could see we attacked, we were aggressive and we ran the stuff we wanted to run,” Allen said. “Just personally, there was a rhythm there in the fourth quarter.
“We got stops and we were able to run in transition.”
James played the final 8:37 of the game after injuring his leg at the end of the third quarter. Cramps forced him to the locker room with five seconds left in the third period and the Heat leading by four points. The Heat led by five points when he reentered the game, but the Pacers cut that lead to 76-74 when Paul George made three free throws following a technical foul by Bosh.
Allen then delivered another three-pointer to cut short the Pacers’ rally. Following a steal by Wade with five minutes to play, Allen connected again from three-point range to give the Heat an 87-79 lead.
“We haven’t been hurt quite like that,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, pointing out that the Heat’s fast-paced style dominated the run of play in the final quarter.
Wade had 23 points and carried the Heat for long periods while the rest of the team struggled to find rhythm. Bosh and Norris Cole both finished with nine points. The Heat was 10 of 18 from three-point range.
Wade and James combined to match the Pacers with 22 points in the third quarter.
With Bosh in foul trouble in the second and third quarters, the Heat received a boost defensively from Rashard Lewis, who hadn’t played since Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Lewis didn’t score but played more than 17 minutes and helped limit Pacers power forward David West.
“I was just trying to deny him the ball at the elbow — just try to make him catch it a little further out where he won’t be as effective with that jump shot or backing me down in the post,” Lewis said of his defense on West. “I kept a body on him and was a little physical with him.”
West finished with 13 points, going 5 of 8 from the field, and the Heat outscored the Pacers by 21 points when Lewis was in the game.
“The second unit gets the game ball for the energy and effort they brought,” Wade said.
A breakaway dunk by James gave the Heat its first lead of the game with 7:36 remaining in the third quarter. It capped an 8-0 run and set the stage for another frantic third quarter between two team that have provided the NBA with so much drama over the last three postseasons.
The lead changed eight times in less than six minutes in the third quarter, but the Heat led 71-64 entering the fourth quarter after a 10-3 run. Three free throws by Allen after being fouled in the act of shooting a three-pointer started the run and Cole followed with a lightning-quick reverse layup. Wade entered the third quarter for James with five seconds to play and nailed a three-pointer to end the period. Wade then started the fourth quarter with another three-pointer.
George led the Pacers with 17 points and Roy Hibbert had 16. The Pacers committed 19 turnovers, which the Heat converted into 26 points.
“It’s the same story,” George said. “We made turnovers.”
George suffered a concussion in Game 2, but was cleared to play in Game 3 on Friday. He played just 32 minutes due to foul trouble.
It was a brutal start for the Heat in the first quarter and the team never really found a rhythm offensively in the first half. Luckily for the Heat, the Pacers weren’t much better and only led 42-38 at halftime. The two teams combined for 24 turnovers in the first half. The Heat finished the game with 15 giveaways after committing 11 turnovers in the game’s first two quarters.
“You don’t want to read to much into it sometimes, but when you’re down 15 and you’re not making a shot, it’s a blessing in disguise when you cut it to four,” Bosh said.
The Pacers led 19-5 to begin the game and at one point the Heat had two field goals to seven turnovers. Hibbert dominated inside early and led the game with 10 points entering the second quarter. Meanwhile, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra went to his bench early, which helped stop the hemorrhaging.
“We looked like we were stuck in mud,” Spoelstra said.
The Pacers’ lead maxed out at 15 points in the first half before the Heat started playing defense. Then it was the Pacers’ turn to look foolish. Indiana attempted four shots in the final six minutes of the first half.