Heat rise to the occasion in NBA’s biggest game of the year

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You will read plenty of stats that explain why the Heat beat the Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Miami outrebounded Indiana for the first time this series. The Pacers turned the ball over more than any other game this series. Indiana hadn’t shot so poorly on both 2-pointers and 3-pointers in any game this series.

But my favorite number from this game doesn’t explain why the Heat beat the Pacers. It shows why the Heat beat the Pacers.

Miami, at one point tonight, had made 24-of-25 free throws.

That’s about five more made free throws than the players who attempted them, based on regular-season percentages, would be expected to make. The Heat certainly didn’t need the five extra points during their 99-76 win, but the level of focus necessary to make 24-of-25 free throws is rather astounding.

Despite 40 games with enough attempts to qualify, the Heat didn’t make 24-of-25 free throws at any point of a single game all season. And now they were doing it in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals? Incredible.

The Heat played at a level they hadn’t played all playoffs, and that’s why they won. Their free-throw percentage didn’t dip until they were already up 20 late, and it was OK to let their focus slip.

I don’t mean to disparage the Pacers, and I don’t believe the Heat coasted before tonight. They were playing a seventh game because they were approximately even through six games.

But there’s a level a Game 7 can extract from the players participating that a Game 6 cannot. It’s only human that players summon more from within themselves when moment calls for it. With the exception of only those who possess the rare mental acuity that gives them the ability to fool their own minds, maximum effort in Game 7 is higher than than maximum effort in Game 6.

In these biggest moments, the Heat have players who’ve proven their maximum level is supremely high.

LeBron James scored 48 points, including Cleveland’s final 25, in a double-overtime win over the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Dwyane Wade averaged 34.7 points in the 2006 NBA Finals. Ray Allen has scored more points in a single playoff game (51) than any active player, and he set an NBA Finals record by making eight straight 3-pointers.

And here were those those three were carrying Miami in Game 7.

LeBron James (32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals) hit numbers nobody has in a Game 7 in 25 years. Dwyane Wade (21 points) produced his highest-scoring game of since Game 2 of the first round. Ray Allen (10 points, 3-of-5 3-point shooting) shook off a 7-of-24 start to the series from beyond the arc.

The Heat never scored more than seven straight points in Game 7. They didn’t need a longer sustained run, because when Indiana fought back, Miami wasn’t fazed. The Heat have players who just know how to lock into these games.

There have been six Game 7s in the last two years. Miami has played in two and holds the two wins by the largest margins.

The Heat can win under many circumstances. But games like this are right their wheelhouse.