MIAMI – This was the best player of his generation doing what he now does best – win.
When Heat forward LeBron James drove the lane against Indiana and made a game-winning layup with no time left on the clock to give Miami a 103-102 Game 1 Eastern Conference finals victory in overtime he sent the crowd at AmericanAirlines Arena into a frenzy, and sent the Pacers into a stunned funk.
“He continues to amaze, I think, the game of basketball, the world of basketball,” guard Dwyane Wade said.
That’s not easy when you’re already the consensus Best Player on the Planet.
But James, who should have been the unanimous choice as MVP and should have been Defensive Player of the Year, found a way to amaze Wednesday night by recording a triple-double and making the game-winning bucket. And he did it by being normal.
“He has an All-Everything role for us, and this is the norm,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This may be what it takes to beat this team.”
There could have been a number of heroes in Game 1 on Wednesday night. It was, after all, a spectacular game with quite a few memorable moments.
But this night, such as most nights this seasons, belonged to James. He finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, his ninth career playoff triple-double, and made it all look so easy. It’s a sure indication of how far he’s come since winning that title last season.
James, who in his two previous seasons with Miami was constantly ripped for passing the ball in game-winning situations, wasn’t giving up the ball in this situation. No way.
“Once I got the ball I was the only option,” he said.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel helped put James at ease by not putting 7-foot-2 shot-blocking center Roy Hibbert on the court for the game’s final play, an almost inexcusable act.
James said it didn’t make a difference.
“I really wasn’t worried if Hibbert was in the game at all, or if he was in,” he said. “I was worried about trying to get a bucket for our team.”
With 2.2 seconds left in overtime and the Heat trailing, 102-101, James took the inbounds pass from forward Shane Battier and, with little hesitation, began barreling toward the rim.
“I peaked over my left shoulder and I saw Paul George was looking out of place so I just took off,” James said.
George, who was on the path to being the game’s hero, admitted he blew the play by getting too close to James defensively, which allowed him to drive past George. The Pacers would have preferred George play off a little bit and force James to shoot a jumper.
“I slipped up,” George said. “I just slipped up at the end.”
And it’s a shame because George was absolutely incredible in Game 1.
Understand something: George (team-high 27 points) hit three incredibly clutch free throws to give Indianapolis its 102-101 lead with 2.2 seconds left in overtime. George also hit the 32-foot three-pointer as time expired at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime tied at 92.
He was money. He was set to be the hero until James stole the crown. There were other good performances, too.
Heat forward Chris Andersen, the Birdman, finished with 16 points on a perfect 7-for-7 shooting performance and added three blocks. It was the most consecutive field goals in a Heat playoff game without a miss, surpassing the 6-for-6 performance by center Alonzo Mourning.
Pacers forward David West (26 points) was killing the Heat early. He had 18 first-half points. But he only had eight in the second half and overtime.
Heat forward Chris Bosh (17 points, 15 in second half and overtime) tied the game at 99 with 49 seconds left in overtime with his three-point play on a tip-in and free throw.
Hibbert finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. But he wasn’t on the court for the Heat’s final two possessions. Vogel wanted to keep a smaller lineup on the court so the Pacers could easily switch defenders if the Heat ran a pick-and-roll.
It was a mistake. Had Hibbert been in the game he could have protected the rim and prevented what was basically an uncontested layup for James.
“I’m 100 percent sure he would have been there,” George said of Hibbert.
Vogel said if the situation occurs again, most likely Hibbert will be on the court.
Said Vogel: “We’ll have to evaluate and see what we’ll do the next time. I would say we’ll probably have him in next time.”
It might not matter. After winning his first NBA title last season it appears nothing can stop James. He’s always been great. But now he’s doing the one thing he had trouble doing previously – making clutch, game-winning shots.
James has to prove himself again in Friday’s Game 2 in Miami, and in every game thereafter. However, the way he’s playing right now there’s little doubt that will happen. As Wade said, James continues to amaze.