Source: USA TODAY
MIAMI — Put the ball in the hands of the world’s best player. Win or lose with four-time NBA MVP LeBron James trying to make a play.
That’s exactly what Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra did, and James, as he does more and more as his career unfolds, delivered, scoring the Heat’s final four points, including the winning layup as time expired in overtime for a 103-102 victory against the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
It didn’t a take brilliant coach to get James the ball. But it did take a solid play call from Spoelstra on the final play of the game, questionable coaching decisions by Pacers coach Frank Vogel — namely Roy Hibbert’s curious absence on Miami’s final two possessions — and an MVP move and finish from James.
After Pacers forward Paul George made three fouls shots — Dwayne Wade fouled him with 2.2 seconds remaining — James took an in-bounds pass from Shane Battier at the top of the three-point line, spun slightly past George, took one dribble and made a left-handed layup with no one in front of him for the win.
“Shane definitely gave me a great pass,” James said. “I peeked over my left shoulder. I saw Paul George was a little out of place. Once I got the ball, I was the only option at that point, especially with only being two-plus seconds left. As unselfish as a player I am, I cannot in no way try to make a pass at that point.”
James, who posted his ninth career playoff triple-double with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, downplayed the winning shot.
“Spo drew a good play to put me in position to be successful,” he said. “It’s my job to go out there and make it happen. I mean, I made a layup. It’s not like I made something from halfcourt. I made a layup. I’ve been doing that since I was 8 years old.
“I understand the circumstances a little bit. It happened to have been in the Eastern Conference finals. When you practice something over and over and over, it’s just second nature to you.”
As James let go of the ball, Wade, who fouled out, was already jumping in celebration.
The shot was memorable for what James did and who wasn’t there to defend James — Hibbert, Indiana’s noted 7-2 rim protector and shot blocker.
Vogel took Hibbert out of the game with 2.2 seconds left after George’s three free throws gave Indiana a 102-101 lead.
It was a substitution that Vogel will re-think several times and one that deserves scrutiny.
“Obviously, with the way it worked out, it would have been better to have Roy in the game,” Vogel said.
Hibbert was not on the court for James’ layup with 10 seconds left in overtime, giving Miami a 101-99 lead, and wished he would have tried convincing Vogel to let him stay on the court for the final play.
“LeBron’s layup was one that I think I could have gotten because he served it up,” Hibbert said.
Asked what would have happened had Hibbert been in the game, James said, “I don’t know. Do any of us know that? … You can’t say what would have been different. … I was on the attack when Hibbert was in the game. I was on the attack when Hibbert wasn’t in the game. That’s not for us to worry about.”
George, the NBA’s 2012-13 Most Improved Player, took responsibility for his defense on James on the play.
“I slipped up. I just slipped up at the end,” he said. “At this point, every possession counts. And that’s what we’ve got to understand, myself included. … The margin of error is so small at this level.
“I have to understand, you have to make LeBron shoot a jumper at that point. … That’s what we wanted. We wanted LeBron to shoot a jumper.”
The game’s final play overshadowed so many other huge plays and shots. George went from a first-half dud (two points) to a second-half stud and was the main reason why Indiana had a chance to win the game in the first place.
He finished with a team-high 27 points, making a 32-foot three-pointer with 0.7 seconds left in regulation, tying the score at 92-92. George converted a three-point play with 2:10 left in overtime, giving the Pacers a 99-96 lead.
“I grabbed him after the game and told him to quickly forget about the last play,” Vogel said. “He’s a third-year player, and he’s playing the best player in the world, someone who is going to go down as arguably one of the best players in the history of the game. He’s playing him toe-to-toe and just competing his tail off and doing a great job.
“I’m very, very proud of his whole effort, his whole game in the first half defensively, and the way he made big shot after big shot down the stretch, and particularly those three free throws. Those are pressure free throws and big-time plays.”
Just as Indiana needed George, the Heat needed a strong performance from an unlikely reserve: forward Chris Andersen. If James was Miami’s best player on the court, Andersen was the second best.
He finished with 16 points, five rebounds and three blocks and worked in concert with James, either scoring off James’ passes or scoring off shots James missed.
“The contribution we got from Bird tonight was unbelievable,” James said.
It was exciting as it was unusual. David West had 26 points, and Hibbert had 19 points and nine rebounds for Indiana.
The Heat made just 16-for-25 free throws, and Indiana hit just 4-for-14 three-pointers. Heat guard Ray Allen, a career 88.5% free throw shooter in the playoffs, made just 1-for-2 with 17.7 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Had he made both, he would have put Miami up 93-89. Instead, he left the door open for George’s overtime-forcing 3.
Chris Bosh finished with 17 points, but he didn’t have a rebound through three quarters. Yet, he made Miami’s biggest offensive rebound: a tip-in where he was fouled. He made the free throw and tied the score at 99-99 with 49.9 seconds left in overtime.
In the first half, 22 fouls were called, the teams combined for 25 turnovers, and Bosh and West spent the final minutes of the second quarter on the bench with three fouls. James had two fouls in the first quarter, a rarity for him.
Indeed, an odd game.
“Back and forth the whole way,” Spoelstra said. “Trying to manage playing well, playing inefficient, playing poorly. But in the end, it just came down to finding a way even if it wasn’t pretty. Glad to get that one.”
Game 2 is Friday in Miami (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT), and if the start of the series is any indication, another competitive contest is expected.
“It was a terrific basketball game,” Vogel said. “Two great teams just throwing punch for punch. Our spirit is very high, very confident. We know we can play with this basketball team.
“We’ve got to play better. We can’t have 20 turnovers and give up 24 second-chance points and miss eight free throws. You have to play a near-perfect game to beat this team. We played a very good basketball game, but we have to play better.”
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