LeBron James straightened his back and stared into the eyes of Lance Stephenson and shoved the Pacers’ agitator in the chest.
Stephenson stepped to James, and before officials could break up the confrontation James screamed something that might not get past the censors manning the gates of this newspaper.
“Don’t [expletive] touch me,” James shouted at point-blank range.
Stephenson did not. The Pacers were all talk, after all, but Stephenson was speechless, for once in this series, with James breathing hot anger down his neck.
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“I have no idea how I restrained," James said after the game. "It was uncalled for. I let him know how I felt."
And then it was over — the game, the drama and the Pacers’ season. It all happened so suddenly, the Heat’s series-clinching run in the first half. It extended pretty much for the rest of the game and gave the two-time defending champions a 117-92 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena and a ticket to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals.
Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals wasn’t so much a basketball game as it was an extermination.
Over the next 16 minutes, the Heat wiped away every memory that these playoff games against the Pacers were ever competitive. And now the real series begins for the Heat on Thursday night in one Southwestern town or another.
The Heat enters the NBA’s championship round undefeated at home this postseason, but it will begin the Finals on the road against either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder. The Spurs lead the Thunder 3-2 in the Western Conference finals, with Game 6 on Saturday night in Oklahoma City.
The Heat defeated the Thunder in five games in the 2012 Finals and needed seven games against the Spurs to claim the crown last season.
Whoever the Heat faces, they are four victories away from inclusion in a select group of legendary teams.
This latest trip to the NBA Finals now truly places the Heat in rarefied air. The professional basketball franchise owned by Micky Arison, the cruise boat mogul, now joins the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics as the NBA’s only franchises to reach the Promised Land in four consecutive years.
The Celtics have done it twice, of course. There were Bill Russell’s Celtics, which ran through the old Eastern Division of the NBA for 10 consecutive years (1957-1966). Then there were Larry Bird’s Celtics, which reached the Finals from 1984-87. That was arguably the NBA’s Golden Age, with Bird’s run overlapping those sparkling years by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers.
Johnson’s Lakers ushered in the 1980s, and Pat Riley joined during the 1981-82 regular season. With the Showtime Lakers in full bloom, Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar reached the Finals in four consecutive years from 1982-85.
And now James and Dwyane Wade can add their names to that roll call of NBA royalty. Overall, this is the fifth trip to the Finals for the Heat’s cornerstone superstars, who joined forces, along with Chris Bosh, in that unforgettable summer of 2010. This is also the fifth trip to the Finals for Heat mainstay Udonis Haslem and the fourth trip for future Hall of Famer Ray Allen.
James, Wade and Bosh combined for 63 points, going 24 of 38 from the field. Overall, the Heat shot 57.9 percent and outrebounded the Pacers 37-28. The game’s largest lead was 37 points.
It was a two-point game with 3:10 remaining in the first quarter when James shouted down Stephenson after Stephenson cupped his hand around James’ mouth during a break in the action. From that point until the end of the third quarter, the Heat outscored the Pacers 76-45, shooting 63.4 percent from the field and 7 of 15 from three-point range while holding the Pacers to 39.5 percent shooting.
“I don’t think it’s ever good to tug on Superman’s cape,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said of Stephenson’s pestering of James.
James had 25 points, going 8 of 12 from the field. Bosh had 25 points as well, and he was simply unstoppable at times. He was 10 of 14 from the field and finished with eight rebounds. Wade had 13 points, six assists and six rebounds. Rashard Lewis, starting his third consecutive game, had 13 points.
Paul George scored one point in the first half after scoring 21 in the fourth quarter of Game 5. He went 0 of 6 from the field in the first half and 0 of 3 from three-point range and finished with 29 points.
Stephenson had 11 points, going 4 of 9 from the field. David West had 16 points.
James’ standoff with Stephenson coincided with a relentless spurt by Chris Andersen, who played the final 4:38 of the first quarter. After missing Games 4 and 5 with a thigh contusion, Andersen had five rebounds before the second quarter even started. He finished with nine points and 10 rebounds in less than 13 minutes and was 4 of 4 from the field.
“It was bottled up intensity and anger,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.