INDIANAPOLIS — LeBron James didn’t even wait until the final seconds of the Miami Heat’s 91-77 loss to the Indiana Pacers were over before he started getting his teammates pumped up for the next game. One by one, James patted them on the chest, slapped five with them and acted as if there were no need for alarm, though his quest to win multiple NBA championships suddenly was in danger after Miami simply got walloped Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse by an upstart Pacers team playing with purpose.
With Paul George continuing his ascension to stardom, Roy Hibbert controlling the interior on both ends of the floor and David West shrugging off a fever, the Pacers forced Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against a Heat team that steamrolled through the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs but now appears to be teetering because of the bizarre struggles of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“There’s a lot of fight to those guys,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said of his team. “A lot of heart. A lot of guts. And some pretty good talent, too.”
James is surely going to need some help if the Heat has any chance of getting beyond the scrappy Pacers to make a third straight trip to the NBA Finals, let alone repeat as champion. But for most of the night, James was on an island, forced to provide another superhuman performance without much support. The Pacers effectively reduced the Heat from the Big Three to a Big One; James finished with 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while Bosh and Wade combined to score just 15 points.
Bosh made just one field goal — an awkward three-pointer that needed the assistance of the shot clock before falling — while Wade went scoreless in the first half before scoring nine of his 10 points in a third period in which the Pacers outscored Miami, 29-15, and seized control.
“I believe in my teammates,” James said of Wade and Bosh. “They are struggling right now. So they got another opportunity on Monday, and I look forward to the challenge. I know they do as well.”
The Heat was at its best during a six-minute stretch to start the fourth quarter when Bosh and Wade were resting on their cushioned leather seats.
Wade has been struggling because of a right knee ailment. Bosh has been dealing with a sprained ankle but otherwise has vanished without explanation while getting completely dominated by Hibbert, the former Georgetown center who scored 22 of his 24 points in the first three quarters.
Hibbert went down the lane for an easy layup that put the Pacers ahead 68-51 with 23.9 seconds left in the third period. Indiana allowed the Heat to get back into the game because of lazy and rushed passes, questionable decisions and bad shots.
With James sharing the floor with reserves, Miami got within 72-68 when he made a driving layup with 5:53 remaining, but the Pacers answered with a gusty run of their own. George (28 points) made a three-pointer that stemmed the Miami run, then West (11 points, 14 rebounds) recovered a loose ball and dunked, swinging on the rim for emphasis.
James then drove the lane, hoping to draw a foul on Hibbert, but he instead was called for an offensive foul.
Livid and in disbelief, James made a beeline to the other end of the court and was called for a technical foul. Heat assistant David Fizdale also picked up a technical, and the Pacers got four points out of the possession as Hibbert followed two George Hill free throws with a jump hook over James that secured the win.
“Game 7s are a treasure in pro sports,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said as his team faces an elimination game in a playoff series for just the third time and its second Game 7 since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces in the summer of 2010. “We would’ve liked to have closed this out earlier, but Game 7s are the ones you’ll remember 20 years from now.”