We can talk about Xs and Os, offense versus defense, and individual player matchups over the course of a seven game playoff series. But sometimes, it all boils down to something as simple as which team the best player in the game plays for.
That was certainly the case in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, where LeBron James overcame a lackluster first half to completely take things over in the third by scoring 16 of his 30 points in leading Miami to a 90-79 victory, and a three games to two lead in the best-of-seven series.
James is of course capable of outbursts like the one we saw in this one, but it seemed to come out of nowhere, especially considering the way he chose to play during the first half.
This had all the makings of a game that the Pacers could win, if only they could get the performances out of their stars that they did to start the game for the entire thing, and if they could just contain James while preventing him from doing exactly what he did during that game-changing third quarter.
Paul George and Roy Hibbert were both fantastic offensively in the first quarter, combining for all 23 of the Pacers’ points in the period. Indiana’s team defense was about as good as it gets, with crisp rotations that forced the Heat role players into taking the bulk of the shots. David West took his turn in the second period with 10 points of his own, and the Pacers kept defending with purpose while continuing to successfully limit Miami offensively.
The halftime break was enough for the Heat to gain focus, and it initiated with animated speeches from two of their leaders. Udonis Haslem said in his postgame press conference that Juwan Howard fired up the team in the locker room, and LeBron echoed those words in a tirade on the sidelines before the third quarter began, and then proceeded to go out and lead with his actions.
In the first half, LeBron was extremely passive offensively. There were multiple plays that saw James get into the lane with dribble penetration, only to stop short once he saw Hibbert rotating over, at which point he would kick it out to one of his teammates instead of attacking or taking makable shots. In the third quarter, James was noticeably more aggressive, hitting a series of midrange jumpers, three-pointers from distance, and shots in the paint to take control of this game.
On the rare occasions when James chose to defer in the third, Haslem was the one open when the defense collapsed. He hit baseline jumpers over and over again, and scored 10 of his 16 points in the period on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting.
There was plenty of talk about the officiating heading into this one, but there was only one play that truly stood out. It involved Chris Andersen taking two shots at Tyler Hansbrough in the second quarter, and Andersen somehow wasn’t ejected for his actions. He was given a flagrant foul, however, and the league may very well upgrade it after review in the coming days, and it wouldn’t at all be a surprise of Andersen was suspended for that crucial contest.
With or without Andersen, and no matter how little Miami gets out of guys like Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh who were both completely ineffective on this night, the Heat will be confident in knowing that they have the game’s best player on their side as they enter Game 6 one win away from a third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
Sometimes, that’s all that matters.