MIAMI – There were two minutes left in overtime and the Indiana Pacers were up five points. There were three possessions left in the game for the Miami Heat. LeBron James was to have the ball in his hands on all three.
Here it went again, another referendum on what James would do in a game that actually had a playoff-type feel. What decisions would he make? Would he be the game’s hero or the game’s goat?
This, fair or unfair, is a focal point of his career now. It may not be relevant in five years or next year. Or it may define him. Whatever the outcome, James is well aware of this and is mindful of it. All of which makes his actions and reactions meaningful on nights like these.
The three plays went like this: James shot, James passed and James passed.
All three could be termed the “right basketball play,” the criteria he has long set as a goal for these situations. This time the right basketball play worked as it was supposed to. All three possessions played out exactly how James wanted them and the Heat took a 93-91 victory over the Pacers.
Dwyane Wade was rightfully the hero, hitting an off-balance jumper just ahead of the buzzer for the winning basket and the last of his 28 points. It was a tremendous shot that took some talent and some luck.
It was Wade’s third game-winning shot of the season.
“We have a lot of weapons,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We are at our best when you’re not necessarily sure where that last shot is coming from.”
This is both politically correct and the way the Heat have continued to operate. It has led to plenty of criticism, mostly fired at James. But the Heat are staying the course.
In this case the ball got to Wade’s hands because James put it there. James had possession with 20 seconds left and he called Wade over to give him the last shot. James looked to the bench and signaled to Spoelstra and signaled he wanted to hold for the last shot and he wanted to give the ball to Wade.
The coach nodded and put the timeout he had in his pocket. There is an interest in who the team’s so-called “designated closer” is. The Heat attempt to ignore issue but on this night it was James who designated that he wanted Wade to take the last shot.
“I gave the ball to D-Wade and he made it happen,” said James, who had 27 points. “I didn’t second-guess it at all. I had enough opportunities to make plays. I made a few that put us in position to win. That is all I want to do, make plays that give us a chance to win.”
On the possession before, with the Heat down two, James also called the play. Again, it was not for him. It was a pick-and-roll that set up Chris Bosh for a clean jumper that tied the game. The Pacers, who had seen James put 14 points on them in the fourth quarter and overtime, focused on James while James focused on getting Bosh a clean look.
“Not that many people take the last shot, there’s a very small percentage in the world,” Bosh said. “We could say it is my turn, it is my shot and be selfish. But we don’t.”
James started the strong finish with a pivotal 3-pointer that made it a one-possession game with 1:44 left in overtime. It was the fourth big basket he made down the stretch. It included two baskets on breakaways late in the fourth quarter, one that turned into a 3-point play. Plus a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in regulation that forced overtime, a rainbow from the corner -- at the end of a four-pass string -- that instantly became one of the most clutch shots he has made as a member of the Heat.
James was mostly emotionless after making the shot and wasn’t too fired up talking about it afterward, but it had to take a load off him after there’s been so much discussion about this very topic for months on end.
“I’ve made game winners, I’ve shot and missed game winners, I’ve made passes for game winners and I’ve made passes where the shot doesn’t go in,” he said.
“I’m not too concerned what (opinions are) out there. I can only be concerned with what happens in our locker room. The coaching staff that I have here now and I the coach I had in Cleveland gave me all the confidence to make the right play at the end.”
It was a quality victory as well. The Pacers, who were drilled in their previous two meetings against the Heat by a total of 50 points, treated this like a mini-playoff game. They spent three days preparing for the Heat and wanted to make a statement.
They nearly did, leading almost the entire game and appearing to have control late in the fourth quarter and overtime. But James led comebacks both times before Wade, who had just six points with six assists in the second half.
In total, James' late-game playmaking was nearly flawless. It indeed looks so much better when he passes and his teammates make the shots. Either way, he doesn’t plan to change his method.
“I understand what comes with it,” James said of his decision-making. “It is good when you’re able to make a play that is successful for your team.”