MIAMI – The last time the San Antonio Spurs were in The Finals, they swept LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. So maybe they’re happy to hear James say that he “kind of went back to my Cleveland days” in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Dwyane Wade, playing with a bum knee, scored 10 points in 41 minutes. Chris Bosh, playing with a sprained ankle, scored seven points in 33 minutes. You could replace them with 2007 versions of Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden and there might not have been much of a difference on Thursday.
So, with his team down four at halftime, the MVP knew he had to take charge. He did just that, scoring or assisting on 25 of the Heat’s 30 third-quarter points and leading them to a 90-79 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
“We were in wait mode in the first half, instead of going and getting it,” James said afterward. “I took it upon myself to stop waiting and just go.”
The Pacers won the other three quarters, 66-60. The Heat won the third, 30-13. And they’re taking their 3-2 series lead back to Indianapolis for Game 6 on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
If the 2013 Heat are suddenly the 2007 Cavs, they don’t have much of a chance against the Spurs. Heck, they might not make it through this series. But 2013 LeBron James is not 2007 LeBron James, and that may be all the difference.
Though their 40 first-half points were as much about pace as they were about efficiency, the Heat found something that worked — James in the high post — in the third. It wasn’t a new look for the Heat, but it was in such large doses. And the Pacers couldn’t stop it, as Miami scored 25 points on the 16 possessions the Heat went to it, including 13 points on six possessions in the 12 minutes that changed the game.
Those 30 third-quarter points came on just 20 possessions, as the Heat, despite the ineffectiveness of two of their three All-Stars, looked like the offensive force they were throughout the regular season. This was a level of efficiency that those Cavs never reached, in part because there was never so much more variety to James’ game in Cleveland.
“When you think he can’t get better, when he can’t do anything else, he comes back and starts the new season bring something else to his game,” Udonis Haslem, the Zydrunas Ilgauskas on this night with 16 points on 8-for-9 shooting, said. “We know every night we can depend on him. It’s our job to just try to keep up with him.”
The Heat’s three wins in this series have come with large doses of pick-and-rolls in Game 1, low-post touches for James in Game 3, and high-post touches for James in Game 5. Every time the Pacers seem to gain some traction, the champs come with a new look.
The Pacers can draw some comfort it Miami’s shooting numbers on Thursday. The Heat took 44 of their 75 shots from outside the paint, connecting on 21 (48 percent) of those 44 jumpers. Only seven of James’ 26 shots came from the paint, but he shot 7-for-12 from mid-range and 3-for-7 from beyond the arc. Furthermore, he had just four free throws, and the Heat had just 12 as a team.
That kind of perimeter shooting *probably isn’t sustainable (Miami had shot just 32 percent from outside the paint in the first four games), but the Pacers feel they were partially responsible for such hot shooting.
*A year ago, James shot 10-for-16 from outside the paint in his huge Game 6 in Boston. He then shot 8-for-48 from outside the paint over the last six games of the postseason.
“I thought they were probably more open than usual,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t get to shooters well enough tonight.”
“Most of it was us,” Roy Hibbert added. “We just didn’t defend at a high enough level to get the job done.”
But as much as the Pacers can feel optimistic about how unsustainable the Heat’s shooting was, Miami can feel good about the way they defended in Game 5. After scoring over 110 points per 100 possessions through the first four games, Indiana was held to just 79 on 83 possessions on Thursday.
They pressured the Pacers’ guards, who came up empty. They rotated, double-teamed the post, helped and recovered. And they did it without fouling, holding Indiana to just 15 free throws, less than half of their total in any of the previous four games. Most importantly, the Heat finished off their defensive possessions with rebounds.
Indiana was held to just six offensive boards after averaging 15.3 in the first four games. It was a team effort for Miami, but James was as much of a force on the glass as he was on offense. He led the team with eight rebounds, all on the defensive end of the floor, the last three coming over or next to 7-foot-2 Hibbert, who grabbed only two offensive boards in his 40 minutes.
It was, by far, the Heat’s best defensive performance of the series. And it was probably more characteristic of both Miami’s defense and Indiana’s offense than any of the first four games were.
“It’s getting to our identity,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “applying pressure, covering ground, hopefully forcing them into mistakes, or at least getting them to play faster than they would typically like. That was the more important key to the second half, as our guys were flying around.”
James’ Game 5 numbers — 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists — weren’t quite on the “Video Game James” level that we’ve seen him reach in other playoff games. But it was the slow pace (the Heat had just 82 total possessions) that really kept him from completely blowing out the boxscore.
Make no mistake about it. He dominated this game, and has the ability to do the same every time he shows up at the arena. Best player on the floor. Best player in the world. Sometimes, that’s what it comes down to.