|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2013||[Print without images]|
MIAMI -- There were times when LeBron James looked lost, the result of lockdown defense from either Paul George or Lance Stephenson.
There were lengthy segments of the game when his scoring was nonexistent, such as the entire second quarter and, more notably, the final 4:30 of regulation and first 4:49 of overtime.
And yet, there was James, mauled by giddy teammates after he saved the opener of the Eastern Conference finals for Miami with two layups in 10.8 seconds, including a buzzer-beating lefty layup that came with surprisingly little resistance from the Pacers.
And yet, there was LeBron's ridiculous stat line -- one you noticed really only after the game because of all the tension and compelling plays throughout the final minutes: 30 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and three blocked shots (the first such stat line in a playoff game since Ralph Sampson in 1986).
It wasn't too long ago that performances like this one, complete with the last-second heroics, would elicit bold statements about LeBron, his team or his championship worthiness.
Now, it hardly draws a shrug. In fact, LeBron barely reacted at all as his teammates rushed to congratulate/thank him.
"I mean, I made a layup," James said, drawing laughs. "It's not like I made something from half court. I made a layup. I've been doing that since I was 8 years old.
|LeBron James notched his ninth career postseason triple-double (30 points, 10 rebounds 10 assists) in Miami's Game 1 win.|
"I understand the circumstances a little bit. It happened to have been in the Eastern Conference finals."
Perhaps it was smart of LeBron to save his energy, then. Because his coach believes this type of performance will need to be the norm for James in this particular series.
"He has an all-everything role for us," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "This may be what it takes to beat this team."
The Heat know what kind of superhuman performances are necessary to beat the physical, large and defensive-minded Pacers.
Last postseason, the East quarterfinal matchup between them included a 41-point, 10-rebound game from Dwyane Wade, a 40-point, 18-rebound game from James, a 32-point, 15-rebound from LeBron and another 30-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist game from his majesty, and it still took six games to dispose of Indiana.
And this series wasn't supposed to be as taxing. Remember, Chris Bosh played in only one of those six games last postseason, and he would appear to be a matchup nightmare for the Indy bigs who prefer to plant themselves in the paint.
And that Heat team didn't have Ray Allen or Chris Andersen, who was absolutely critical in Wednesday's series opener with 16 points on 7-of-7 shooting with three blocks.
Well, that theory has been tossed out the window after just one game.
Because David West can still dominate the Heat interior, as he did in the first half on his way to 26 points. Because George, even when he looks sloppy and turns the ball over six times, is a tireless, dynamic force who can hit both the ridiculously difficult shots and the most pressure-packed free throws. Because Roy Hibbert has found himself in these playoffs after an uneven regular season. And because Stephenson, a fixture on the bench last season, is a nearly uncontrollable bundle of energy who makes the Pacers an even better rebounding team.
The extraordinary remains a necessity for Miami. LeBron responded to the request.
Miami's biggest lead in the game was five points, and yet there were times when it felt like the Heat would eventually pull away.
Moments like this one:
With less than five minutes left in regulation and the game tied, Hibbert blocked a Wade layup attempt. Yet the ball somehow found its way to LeBron in the right corner for a shot clock-beating 3-pointer to give Miami the lead.
The Pacers had to feel like it wasn't their night after a deflating play like that. Yet they never allowed the Heat any separation. And when Ray Allen missed a critical free throw and George followed with a 32-foot 3-pointer off a broken play, it suddenly appeared as if it would be Indiana's night after all.
That meant overtime, which meant LeBron's work wasn't complete.
It wasn't until the final 11 seconds of overtime that he truly went to work.
After a questionable switch that left George Hill defending him, LeBron went straight to the rim to give Miami a 101-99 lead with 10.8 seconds left, his first points of the extra session.
That bucket seemed like it would be enough. Especially as Norris Cole almost recovered a loose ball on a frantic Pacers final possession.
But just as that loose ball found LeBron in the corner for a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, this one got to George, who took a desperate 3-pointer and was hit on the arm by Wade.
George made all three free throws -- a feat he won't nearly get enough credit for doing in a conference finals with the game on the line -- putting the Heat in position to ask for more from LeBron.
James wasn't the only option in the play Spoelstra drew up. He just happened to be the best one.
James actually badly wanted an inbound pass from Wade in the final 0.7 seconds of regulation. He had the smaller George Hill running at him, which would've made launching a 3 much easier for him than it was for Allen, who ended up with an impossible shot in the corner against a taller defender.
This time, in overtime, LeBron would get the inbound pass from Battier.
It could've been luck, a brilliant pass or that eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head vision LeBron often displays, but James immediately turned over his right shoulder past George, who was leaning the other direction.
From there, it was such an easy path to the rim for the lefty finish that Wade, on the bench with six fouls, began celebrating the win before James was even in his shooting motion.
"Once I got the ball, I was the only option," James said. "As unselfish a player as I am, I cannot, no way, try to make a pass at that point.
"Shane definitely gave me a great pass. I peeked over my left shoulder. I seen Paul George was a little out of place. So I just took off. I knew I had enough time to do either -- I could either get to the rim or I could get one dribble in and get up a jumper."
George said he regretted coming that close to LeBron at all. He said he should've given him space and made him a jump shooter in that spot.
George, and everyone else watching, said Hibbert would've made a big difference on that play if he were in the game.
All that can't be changed now.
But we can change the way we view this series.
It was deemed by most as a clash of styles and Miami would eventually prevail in five or six games.
Well, now even Wade unintentionally predicted it's going the distance.
"We can expect this for seven games," he said.
Well, maybe we can't expect this type of drama. And maybe it'll still be fewer than seven games.
But we can expect to see the superhuman side of LeBron James for each game.
His team, it appears, will need every bit of it.