VIDEO: LeBron James responds to Lance Stephenson’s Game 5 antics
INDIANAPOLIS – Michael Jordan had his “flu” game, Game 5 of the 1997 Finals when he played 44 minutes, scored 38 points and fell into Scottie Pippen‘s arms at the end, visibly spent but victorious.
LeBron James nearly had his “sit” game Wednesday night, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers. Nearly, that is, because James wasn’t able to overcome the foul trouble that planted him on the Miami Heat bench for stretches in the first, second and third quarters. He played less than 25 minutes, scored a career playoff-low seven points on 2-for-10 shooting and still had a chance to own the outcome if only Chris Bosh‘s 3-pointer from the right corner (off James’ penetration and kick-out) had hit with 4.9 seconds left.
In place of that, then, the Pacers had their “asterisk” game.
What else can you call it when a hangdog team, mired in a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series, gets gifted with friendlier whistles than even Kate Upton hears? Never before in James’ career had he been called for five fouls in the first three quarters of the game. It took him all of 13:53 to pick up those five compared to, say, his seven fouls in 158 minutes in Miami’s entire first-round series against Charlotte.
If the NBA conspiracy theorists had turned James’ foul trouble into a drinking game, a lot of them might have passed out and missed a dynamite fourth quarter.
“The game is reffed by the refs,” James, conspicuously unruffled by his restricted performance, said afterward. “They ref how they see it. We play it, and you live the results.”
James’ first foul was a touch foul as Paul George tried to split between James and Dwyane Wade midway through the first quarter. He got his second due to George Hill‘s early aggression in attacking the paint, and subbed out with 2:43 left in the first.
He stayed out until 7:13 of the second quarter, coming in for Wade and lasting barely a minute before picking up a charge. The best player in the league (world?) was done again and went into halftime having made only one of his five shots and scoring two more points than you or me.
Funny thing was, Miami was up 42-33. A rare opportunity for Indiana was starting to look like a looming nightmare.
“LeBron was on the bench for a stretch,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t take advantage of it.”
Said George, who would wind up with 37 points but had only six by halftime: “When he was in foul trouble, everybody had to be aggressive. That’s a huge weapon that they’re missing. Everybody was aware that he was on the bench and how limited this team was without him, and how much everybody had to step up.”
Except the Pacers didn’t. While Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen were hitting 3-pointers to keep the Heat in front, Indiana was misfiring from the arc (1-for- 8) and from the foul line (2-for-6). James was over on the bench, as calm as a commuter waiting for a late bus. At least he had a whole ‘nother half in which to do his thing.
Or did he? James fouled Hibbert on a layup just 21 seconds into the third quarter. At 8:34 he got nailed with No. 5 while scrambling against Lance Stephenson for a loose ball. The Heat’s lead was eight, on its way to 11 when Lewis hit another 3-pointer.
“It sucks for me because I’m not able to make plays to help our team win,” James said later. “I made a couple in the fourth, but 24 minutes is not enough for me to make an imprint on the game like I know I’m accustomed to.
“So you just continue to help the guys from the bench, let them know what you can see when you’re in foul trouble and ways we can try to exploit them. But I’m much better on the floor than I am off it, for sure.”
That third quarter turned ugly for Miami. Four-and-a-half minutes after James sat down, Indiana pulled even at 50-50. It was 64-57 Pacers heading into the fourth, the Heat getting outscored 27-12 after James got yanked.
In the fourth, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra waited 90 seconds before subbing in James. He scored five points, shooting 1-for-5 again, and clearly was out of rhythm and not in synch with the rest of the game. But he still commanded enough respect that, on Miami’s last possession, Hibbert came to help when James drove into the lane with George on his hip. If Bosh’s shot had dropped, James would have been lauded for his playmaking.
Instead, he was remembered for his absence.
“We run a lot through LeBron and he’s our best defender, our best offensive player, and our best player, period,” Bosh said. “Anytime you have your best player out, it’s a little bit more difficult. And he creates for everybody, so we had to fend for ourselves out there. He spoils us a little bit.”
James seemed determined afterward to shrug off the foul calls, a conscious effort not to bellyache the way the Pacers had after Game 4. He talked more than once about “the things that we can control and not the things we can’t control.”
What he and the Heat can control now in this series is Game 6, Friday in Miami.
“We’re expecting LeBron to be LeBron,” George said, “and that’s how we want it. … We’re capable of winning the ballgame with LeBron scoring 30 to 40 points.”
Careful what you wish for, young fella. James scored seven and Indiana won by three. And he might not hear five whistles the rest of this postseason.