MIAMI — It took six games, countless questions about Dwyane Wade’s right knee and Chris Bosh’s confidence, and even concerns that LeBron James had suddenly become the one-man team that he never wanted to be when he joined the Miami Heat. It took a continued thrashing inside from Roy Hibbert and David West and the emergence of Paul George to make the Heat appear susceptible to an upset.
But just when it appeared that Miami was its most vulnerable, the defending champion Heat offered a reminder of why it has spent most of this season as a prohibitive favorite to repeat. Pushed to the brink of elimination for just the third time since the celebrated all-star trio of James, Wade and Bosh came together, Miami walloped the upstart Indiana Pacers, 99-76, to earn a highly anticipated NBA Finals matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.
In his fourth career Game 7, James once again showed why he rests on a plane separate from the rest of the league, as he led all scorers with 32 points and added eight rebounds and four assists, strutting off the court to a standing ovation with 5 minutes 8 seconds left in the game and Miami up by 25.
“This is what it’s all about,” James said. “I dreamed of opportunities like this as a kid, to have a Game 7, no matter at home or on the road. To see the dream become a reality, I’m just very blessed. Our team is blessed. And we’re just happy to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals.”
James will now have a chance to get revenge against the same Spurs team that swept him in his first trip to the NBA Finals in 2007, when he was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I’m not going to take this win for granted. I’m definitely going to savor this win,” he continued. “This is an opportunity for us again to be able to win a championship. So I don’t have relief at all of anything, right now, because I have a lot of work still to do.”
Wade, who had been hobbling for the past three games, found the strength to slash to the basket with abandon and scored a series-high 21 points — only the second time this postseason that he reached 20 points. And after complaining about a lack of touches following Miami’s loss in Game 6, Wade aggressively made sure he got some, as he attacked the offensive glass and finished with a game-high nine rebounds. Through three quarters, Wade had more offensive rebounds (six) than the entire Pacers team (five).
“That’s probably the hardest he’s played just in terms of effort, we felt,” West said of Wade. “I thought he beat us in the effort department.”
Bosh didn’t exactly have a bounce-back game, finishing with just nine points and eight rebounds, but backup guard Ray Allen made three-pointers and scored 10 points during an impressive second period when Miami outscored the Pacers, 33-16, and eliminated all of the suspense from the contest as it entered the locker room with a 52-37 lead.
Hibbert led the Pacers with 18 points and eight rebounds, but got most of his points in the second half, when the game was already out of reach. George scored a playoff-career-high 28 points in Indiana’s Game 6 victory but followed with a forgettable performance as he fouled out after scoring just seven points with seven rebounds.
“Those guys have been battle-tested,” said Hibbert, who walked toward the locker room, dejected, immediately after the game. “They’ve been through it before. Hopefully, we can learn from this.”
James was definitely going to need help in order for the Heat to make a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals and have a chance to repeat. But aside from the spirited efforts of Wade, Bosh and even Allen, Indiana proved to be a greater ally in helping the Heat advance with their sloppy and unfocused play.
Through the first nine games in the regular season and playoffs, the Pacers managed to come away with five wins, and even dodged elimination two days before. But none of those games packed the pressure of a winner-take-all game on the road. With the franchise in the conference finals for the first time since 2004, the inexperience of the young Pacers never being on such a stage was reflected in a performance that reflected both jitters and a lack of urgency.
Miami, on the other end, was in a familiar position having defeated Boston in seven games in the conference finals just last season. While the Pacers were playing a game, the Heat — and namely James and Wade — was playing for something greater — legacies.
The Heat had a decided edge in experience, with players on its roster appearing in 38 Game 7s, compared to just three on Indiana.
Indiana players stumbled over their feet, threw the ball to the wrong team and shivered under a swarming, ballhawking defense. After allowing the Pacers to dominate the interior throughout this series, the Heat made a significant adjustment and immediately trapped Hibbert and West the moment they got the ball. The change disrupted Indiana’s offense and often left the Pacers scrambling or settling for scraps.
The Pacers also failed to box out on missed shots, allowing Miami to have 22 second-chance points, and didn’t go all-out for rebounds and loose balls with so much at stake. Indiana committed nine of its 21 turnovers in the first quarter, but still managed to lead 23-19 after Hibbert made a long jumper. The game quickly slipped from the Pacers’ grasp.
D.J. Augustin made two free throws to bring Indiana within 28-27, but Allen buried a three-pointer, then Bosh rebounded an airball three-pointer by Pacers reserve Sam Young. It led to a James alley-oop dunk on the other end in which he soared so high that he nearly bumped his head on the rim. Bosh then buried a long jumper and hit a three-pointer that gave Miami a 39-29 lead and let out a guttural howl.
The team that was a juggernaut from October to May finally showed up in June.
“They certainly pushed us to get better,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Pacers, “and ultimately, the competition brought out the best game of the series.”