LeBron James, the world’s most athletically gifted cheerleader, was out of his seat and watching the unexplainable with a smile of dumbfounded bemusement across his face.
What happened in the second quarter of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals didn’t seem possible, but that was just the beginning of a bizarre playoff game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that ended with a 93-90 victory for the Pacers and sent this best-of-7 series back to Miami for Game 6 on Friday.
James only played 70 seconds of the second quarter due to foul trouble, but the Heat outscored the Pacers 26-11 in the period. Those numbers almost defied logic, but a lot about this game challenged reason. For example:
James picked up five fouls in his first 13 minutes on the court. He didn’t contribute anything meaningful to the game until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, and his seven points were a career playoff low.
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Despite all that, the Heat had a chance to win it in the final seconds.
Miami trailed by four points with 46 seconds to play, but a three-pointer by Rashard Lewis gave the defending champions hope, and two missed free throws gave the Heat the ball with 12.8 seconds on the clock. James drove to the basket, but kicked it out to Chris Bosh for the win. Bosh’s corner three-pointer was off the mark, however, and Pacers center Roy Hibbert came away with the series-extending defensive rebound.
Another Game 5 oddity:
Lewis, who entered the game 0 of 7 from the field in the series, went 6 of 9 from three-point range and scored 18 points. The Heat was 15 of 31 from three-point range against a team that led the Eastern Conference this season in three-point defense. Still, the Heat lost.
“Regardless of what happened, we still had enough opportunities to come away with a win,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
And then, of course, the game also featured a little of the bizarre:
Television cameras captured Pacers guard Lance Stephenson blowing into James’ ear before a play. Stephenson was either trying to annoy James, or be really friendly.
“I hope his breath wasn’t too bad for LeBron,” Pacers guard Paul George said.
And then there was George himself, who faded fantastically in Games 3 and 4, but roared back into relevancy during Wednesday’s fourth quarter. He scored 21 points in the period, breaking a record set by Michael Jordan against the Heat, and finished with 37 points.
Amazingly, George’s 31 points in the second half nearly eclipsed the points total of his entire team in the first half. The Heat led the game 42-33 at halftime.
“I didn’t start this game off hot,” George said. “Second quarter, the ball didn’t drop, but I knew we facing elimination. Coach [Frank] Vogel told me green light. Stay on green.
“[David] West kept telling me, ‘Don’t keep no bullets in the chamber.’”
Magazines emptied, this series now goes back to Miami for a pivotal Game 6. A win for the Heat sends a dynasty in the making to its fourth NBA Finals in four years. A victory for the Pacers puts Game 7 in Indianapolis on Sunday, and that home-court advantage these perennial contenders made such a priority becomes a potential hero.
“We’re going against history,” George said, “but we can’t feel like it can’t be done.
“Every player in our locker room, every trainer, every coach, everybody in this organization has to feel like we can accomplish this. And we believe.”
A miraculous performance in the fourth quarter by George certainly restored faith.
Bosh banked in a three-pointer with 1:16 to play to cut the Pacers’ lead to 88-87 and the arena let out a great sound of desperation. The angst was answered by George with 46 seconds left when he made a second-chance three-pointer in front of the Heat’s bench. The shot was made possible by an offensive rebound by Hibbert while James was caught watching the play from just outside the paint.
James redeemed himself, however, when he delivered one of his classic chase-down blocks to save the game on a breakaway layup attempt by Pacers guard George Hill. Lewis delivered his clutch three-pointer with 16 seconds to play to cut Indiana’s lead to 91-90.
“We were trying our best to close it out just to go back home and get some rest and ready for the next round,” Lewis said. “But it’s still a playoff series. Those guys played great defensively, they took care of home court and now we have to try to go home and close it out.”
Following a timeout by the Pacers, Shane Battier knocked away a side-of-bounds pass intended for George, and the officials reviewed the play at length to determine possession. The Pacers were awarded the ball, and on the next side-of-bounds play Battier was whistled for a block before the play.
George missed his one free-throw attempt, but David West was fouled on the Pacers’ third side-of-bounds play of the possession.
“I have really nothing to say about that play,” Battier said of the sequence. “They earned this one. They made a couple more plays than us down stretch.”
West made the front end of his foul shots, which gave the Heat a chance to take the lead.
“He missed the free throw and we still had an opportunity,” Lewis said.
With the Heat trialing 92-90 with 12 seconds left, James caught an inbound pass from Dwyane Wade and sized up the Pacers’ defense. He sliced through the heart of the paint. Defenders swarmed. He passed. Bosh missed.
“LeBron's an unselfish guy,” Bosh said. “It doesn't come down to one play. "
A three-pointer by James tied the game at 81-81 with 3:51 to play, but West answered with a basket inside. George then put the Pacers ahead by four points, but Lewis answered with a three-pointer.
The Heat weathered James’ absence in the second quarter, but then floundered in the third quarter without their versatile superstar.
“It’s frustrating,” James said. “I’m much better on the floor than I am off it.”
Bosh found a silver lining in defeat.
“We run a lot through LeBron,” he said. “He's one of our best defenders, our best offensive player. He's our best player. Any time you have your best player out, it makes it more difficult. He creates for everybody. We had to fend for ourselves out there. He spoils us a little bit.
“I think tonight, we turned a hump. We were able to really work other guys and put ourselves in a position to win.”
Said Wade: “I thought we gave ourselves a chance all night because of our defense. We gave ourselves a chance to win on the road and that’s all you can ask for even with LeBron not putting his imprint on the game.”
James entered the game with 10:30 left in the game and the Heat trailing 69-62. The Pacers’ lead ballooned to 11 points before the Heat made its run. A corner three-pointer by George with 9:15 to play gave the Pacers a 75-66 lead.
George stole a pass moments later and raced the length of a floor for a breakaway dunk. It was James who committed the turnover and it was James who watched as George coasted in for the easy field goal. James is usually a threat to block breakaway attempts, but with five fouls he couldn’t chance it.
With James lacking freedom defensively and struggling offensively, the Heat needed a spark and found it. Dwyane Wade led the comeback, scoring eight points in the fourth quarter.
Bosh caught an airball by James and scored a put-back to cut the Pacers’ lead to 77-68 and, following a missed three-pointer by Stephenson, Wade drilled a three-pointer to cut the Pacers’ lead to 77-71. Wade then went inside for a driving layup and followed with another three-pointer to pull the Heat within one of the Pacers, 79-78, with 4:59 to play.
Wade finished with 18 points and Ray Allen had 15 points off the bench.
West had 19 points and was 7-of-11 shooting. Stephenson finished with 12 points and scored 10 and had 13 rebounds. George’s 21 points in the fourth quarter set an all-time record for points in a quarter against the Heat in a postseason game. Jordan held the previous record (20 points).