James leads, Heat follow and Pacers pushed to brink
MIAMI -- One quarter of the season's most important game explained why five teams set aside their money in hope of signing LeBron James three summers ago. In that one quarter Thursday, the game's greatest player turned a potential loss into a defining win.
"That look I saw tonight is the same look I saw last year in Boston when our backs were against the wall," said Udonis Haslem, who joined with James in leading Miami to its 90-79 win in Game 5 to seize a 3-2 lead in the Eastern finals. "It's not an expression, it's not a smile, it's not a frown, it's not a grimace. It's just a look of determination. It's a look that says I'm not going to quit. It's a look that says I'm going to do whatever it takes to put us in a position to win the game."
The Heat were trailing 44-40 after an opening half in which they were once again ravaged by the Pacers' big front line of Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George, who had combined for all but five of Indiana's points while leading the Pacers to a 24-19 advantage on the glass. The defending champs returned to their locker room to hear a profane lecture from Juwan Howard, the 40-year-old forward who has been inactive throughout the playoffs. James then repeated the message in his own words, and more loudly than Dwyane Wade or any of his teammates had ever heard in his three years here.
"We just had no sense of urgency," said James after exploding for 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists. "We were just waiting for the game to change instead of going to get it. Instead of going to make plays and make things happen and make changes, we were waiting for things to happen ... Before we took the floor in the third quarter, I just gave them a little piece of my mind and a piece of my voice, and we [were] able to respond."
They outscored the Pacers 30-13 in that telltale third quarter. James and Haslem together doubled Indiana's scoring output. Of Miami's nine initial baskets of the half, James assisted for three and finished the other half-dozen himself, and from the start he made his intentions clear to the Heat as well as to the Pacers. After attacking for an opening layup, he appeared agitated while pointing his teammates to different positions. "Once he has that look," said Haslem, "we have to keep up with him."
Haslem was ready to follow orders. He had gone 8 for 9 from the field in Game 3 while helping to run the Pacers out of their own gym last weekend, and two games later he was going 8 for 9 again. The rallying third quarter began and ended with Haslem: James found him under the basket for a layup and then on the elbow for an emotional driving dunk to restore the lead to Miami.
James was on his way to one of those quarters that no one else can generate -- 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting, four assists, four rebounds and a blocked shot. "That's LeBron showing his greatness and making it look easy," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "His engine in that third quarter was incredible. He was making plays on both ends of the court, rebounding, covering so much ground defensively and then making virtually every play for us offensively."
A bad Pacers' possession rewarded James with a leak-out dunk and now he was fully in charge, hitting a couple of jumpers in space and then creating a three for Mario Chalmers -- the only field goal of the period not scored by James or Haslem. A flat-footed fallaway by James over Lance Stephenson extended the Miami lead to five points. "Most of the quarter we were hanging in," said Indiana coach Frank Vogel. "Then the last three or four minutes is when they took it over."
James dribbled to his right for one three and then to his left for another. "I kind of just went back to my Cleveland days at that point and said, hey, let's try to make more plays and be more of a scoring threat as well, and try to figure out a way that I can -- I don't know -- see if the guys would follow me, and lead them the best way I could," he said. "I was in attack mode in the third quarter. Look for my shot."
It has come to that for James because Dwyane Wade (10 points) and Chris Bosh (seven points) have not been their usual prolific selves in this series. The pedigree of this team is that other options are usually available, whether it's Mario Chalmers (12 points and six assists), who has been encouraged by James to attack via their pick-and-rolls, or Haslem, who would go 5 for 5 in the third quarter. He hit three straight jumpers from the elbow to help push Miami's advantage to 70-57 entering the fourth.
"For 10 years I made my living on the baseline," said Haslem, who finished with 16 points. "That's where I'm most comfortable. I'm back to that spot just because of the way they are guarding us and the way [Roy] Hibbert is playing defense this series. That's where I've been more comfortable my whole career."
The run happened because Haslem helped to squeeze Hibbert away from the basket. Indiana's 7-foot-2 center finished with an impressive 22 points, but only four of them came when the Pacers were desperate to respond in the third, and he had only six rebounds overall for the game. "He really set the physical tone for us defensively," said Spoelstra of Haslem. "And in the third quarter he was everywhere, on traps, covering ground, covering up for our guys, helping out, charges, rebounds."
When 6-9 David West (17 points, eight rebounds) confronted the 6-2 Chalmers at the end of another failed Indiana possession in the third, Haslem stepped in noisily as all three of them earned technical fouls. "We're not going to let anybody talk down on our point guard," said James, and that's true -- the only players who are allowed to yell at Chalmers are his teammates, and they do so frequently. "U.D. is our heartbeat. Any time there's a confrontation, if he's on the floor, he goes to protect."
If Haslem is the heartbeat, then James is the heart. His statement quarter left the Pacers with numerous issues to resolve before facing elimination in Game 6 at home on Saturday. As important as it is for them to play through their front line -- George (27 points and 11 rebounds), West and Hibbert combined for 66 points -- they must generate more than the five points they received from their starting backcourt of George Hill (0 for 4) and 22-year-old Stephenson (2 of 7 for four points), who was set back by early foul trouble and then victimized repeatedly by James. "If they're out of sync we're going to struggle," said Vogel of his guards. "I have to get them more involved."
The undersized Heat were more efficient in the paint and shot 50.7 percent overall against the NBA's best defense. The Pacers were held to 11 assists and 18 turnovers, and even so, in spite of all of those problems, they were the higher-scoring team for three periods Thursday. The third was the only quarter won by Miami, and it was the only quarter that mattered because it was defined by James. Good luck to Vogel in finding an answer for him.