This is what we’ve been clamoring to see the entire series, and it took until late in Game 6 before it finally went down.
LeBron James has avoided challenging Roy Hibbert inside for the better part of all six games between the Heat and the Pacers. It’s not fear, obviously, but it may be a sense of cautiousness or a case of overthinking things when it comes to James taking the ball hard to the rack while Hibbert is there patrolling the paint.
That changed late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, and the end result of it all was Indiana pushing its lead back to 13 and sealing the victory to force a seventh game.
WIth 4:18 to play and the Pacers leading by nine, James drives down the lane and elevates as Hibbert is there waiting for him. Both players collide in midair, and on a play that almost always results in a foul being called on the defensive player in that situation — especially when the one with the ball is named LeBron — James is the one whistled for the offensive foul.
Watching the play multiple times from multiple angles, the referees may have seen James initially lead with his right knee in a manner very similar to what we saw from Shane Battier earlier in this series. LeBron’s knee was much more subtle, and he appeared to have it retracted before making contact. But the vision of Battier’s knee to Hibbert’s groin was likely fresh in the officials’ minds, and once they saw the knee of James similarly extended, the decision was made to whistle him for the charge.
What happened next helped put the game away for good in the Pacers’ favor.
James appeared to be both shocked and offended that this particular call didn’t go his way, so he took off sprinting the length of the floor to let his displeasure be known. He was correctly issued a technical foul for his actions, and a Heat assistant coach was given a technical on the same play, as well.
The ensuing possession resulted in four points for the Pacers, and pushed the lead back up to 13, eliminating any slim chances that might have remained of the Heat continuing their comeback.
Afterward, LeBron was candid in speaking with reporters about how things unfolded from his perspective.
“I had to run down the court to stop from being kicked out,” James said. “I thought it was a pretty bad call. I don’t complain about calls too much. I thought me and Hibbert met at the mountaintop. I didn’t throw an elbow. Basically I went straight up. And I knew he was going to go high hands, like he had been doing. So I went to a double‑clutch to try to let him go down. Then I was able to go over the top. I don’t have no idea why that was called an offensive foul.
“So, you know, it just stopped me from being ejected. I think at that moment I just got away from the ref that called it. I ran down the court to get me away from the scene of the crime, I guess.”
Hibbert said he was just there to have his All-Star wing man’s back.
“That play right there, I tell [Paul George], I have his back all the time,” Hibbert said. “If he gets beat, LeBron has a large launching pad, I don’t block a lot of shots all the time, but I try to alter it as much as possible and not to give up any easy plays. Because the momentum could have shifted right there if he got an easy dunk. There was what — was it Game 3 here? I really felt that I let Paul down in terms of having his back when LeBron was scoring in the post or getting to the paint, because they stretched me out so much.
“But I wanted to be there for him. He’s the future. I mean, I think he has a chance to be MVP of this league next year. Every guard needs to have a big guy to have his back. So I’m that guy.”
The guy that gets the best of this matchup between James and Hibbert in Game 7 will be the one headed to the NBA Finals.