INDIANAPOLIS – What the Indiana Pacers endured Sunday night against LeBron James and the Miami Heat — what a global audience saw in all its gory, err, glory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse — ought to have the rest of the NBA feeling afraid. Very afraid.
James in the low post is simply unfair.
This isn’t James, mind you, with a fully developed post game. No one would accuse him yet of boasting a complete arsenal of moves, be they Kevin McHale‘s up-and-under slipperiness, Hakeem Olajuwon‘s footwork and Adrian Dantley‘s rump routines. This is James all raw and athletic; pounding his dribble and bulling his way back; back on the low block until he can just about flick the basketball over his shoulder and over his discouraged defender, who in this case happened to be Indiana’s best player, Paul George.
The man’s torture chamber still is under construction and it’s already more hideous for those who dare to enter than most in the league. Sure, Pacers power forward David West is more polished and experienced at the brutish game down low, but the sense that this is simply wrinkle No. 439 in James’ growing mastery of the game could prove a lot more demoralizing — to Indiana short-term, and to everyone else over time.
“It was something we wanted to get to, to just help settle us and get into a more aggressive attack,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of the tactic. “We wanted to be a little aggressive, a little more committed to getting into the paint and seeing what would happen.”
Mayhem happened, basically. Not anything frenzied or chaotic, but steady and lethal — like logs fed to a buzz saw. Resistance was futile, the results grim.
“I made a conscious effort to sit down in the post tonight, try to put pressure on the defense,” James said, his 22-point, four-rebound, three-assist game more monstrous than monster. “Spo and the coaching staff wanted me to be down there and my teammates allowed me to do that.”
It didn’t happen immediately. James spent the first half of the first quarter – the first eighth of the game – in his familiar perimeter-oriented, pick-his-spots, get-his-teammates-off gear. But, at 20-19 Heat midway through the period, James backed George down, then spun to bank in a shot from five feet. He went down there again a few possessions later, missing from six feet. And then twice more in the first few minutes of the second quarter for a short hook shot and a layup. George, giving up at least 50 pounds to the brawnier James, stoically tried to hold his ground and pester James’ rhythm and shots, mostly failing.
He had managed to keep the matchup above water through the two games in Miami because their duel there played out in the open floor. But, taken inside, he seemed younger and smaller and shoved back a ways on his budding-star learning curve. George was working so hard defensively, too, that much of his offense went missing (3-for-10 for 13 points, although with eight assists).
“I mean, I saw I had a 1-on-1 matchup,” James said. “They didn’t come down in the post all game [to help], so I just tried to take advantage of it. My teammates gave me space. … Tried to anchor myself down on the block and go to work.”
The fruit of his labor was remarkable. By halftime, James had 18 points and the Heat had 70, the most it had scored in a half so far in the postseason and the most given up by the Pacers. Miami was shooting 62.8 percent, had turned over the ball once and led by 14 points.
Heat veteran Udonis Haslem had 13 points in the half on his way to 17, his biggest offensive night in the playoffs since Game 6 of the 2006 Finals. Haslem was in a groove, both inside and particularly from the left side, hitting eight of his nine shots as reliably as a two-thirds Ray Allen or something.
But really, it could have been anyone. Eventually, it was a little of everyone. The Heat drifted away from James in the post but didn’t miss it, because Allen and Shane Battier hit 3-pointers to oil their hinges a little for what’s left of this series and postseason. Also in the second half, Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade played like their aching shoulder and knee, respectively, were distant memories.
For a defending champion that allegedly was so vulnerable as the series shifted to Indianapolis, outplayed in Games 1 and 2 and home-court advantage gone, Miami looked pretty invincible and inevitable again. And left the Pacers grasping for LeBron-in-the-post answers by the time the teams meet again in Game 4 Tuesday night.
“We just have to push him out further,” said George, who’s going to need help from bigs and diggers because he can’t handle this challenge alone. “We understand that’s where he can operate and get easy baskets. I just have to do a better job of battling him down there.”
Center Roy Hibbert tried to shoulder a lot of blame for Indiana’s struggles defensively, noble but not quite accurate. “We have to do a better job of helping Paul out,” he said. “LeBron can’t get five or six dribbles to get a post move. They really spread us out, so I wasn’t able to get down there as much.”
Hibbert wasn’t but James was, generating fright footage that should have both the Pacers and the rest of the league flinching.