LeBron James' buzzer-beating overtime layup gave the Miami Heat a 103-102 win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but it also snatched the spotlight from Paul George, whose own late-game heroics couldn't quite measure up to those of the reigning MVP.
James finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, but the enduring images from what'll surely go down as a playoff epic were his two overtime layups. The first came with just 10 seconds remaining; it put the Heat up by two points.
The second sealed the deal as time expired.
The game-winner was the first of its kind in quite some time.
More interestingly, James' clutch performance was a study in stone-cold dominance. He was never fazed by the moment, got incredibly high-percentage looks (thanks largely to great play calls by coach Erik Spoelstra) and never panicked when things looked bleak.
George, while terrific in his own right, was actually kind of responsible for creating the situations in which his team needed clutch shots. So, in much the same way as a relief pitcher can't come into a game with a 10-run lead, give up seven and walk away with a save, George's goofs have to detract a little bit from his otherwise clutch finish.
George's finish was fantastic, but James' seemed almost predetermined.
With 20 seconds remaining and his team trailing by just two points, George drove the lane, left his feet without a clear plan, and whipped the ball to a wide-open Sam Young in the right corner. Unfortunately, Young was uncovered, because he was out of bounds...on the bench.
That play was a potential killer for Indiana, but some good luck factored into George's game-tying shot at the end of regulation as well.
If Ray Allen, free-throw god, hadn't missed one of his two attempts when the Pacers intentionally fouled him three seconds after George's turnover, the game would have been out of reach. But Allen did miss. And the odd circumstances of George's "clutchness" at the end of regulation didn't end there.
The Pacers' final possession was an odd one, complete with a bizarre decision by George and a subsequent redemption—within the span of just a few seconds.
George took the inbound and quickly found himself with a favorable mismatch, as Udonis Haslem had switched onto him after a somewhat lazy pick-and-roll. Instead of blowing by Haslem and drawing a defender (or even taking the quick two-pointer), George picked his dribble up. When his pass to George Hill was deflected, all seemed lost for Indiana.
But somehow, the ball found David West, who flipped a handoff to George as he streaked to his left. From about 30 feet, the 23-year-old All-Star rose and fired.
James, who was closing out on the play, didn't even jump to contest the shot. He was surprised George had taken it. As the ball tore through the net, James merely shrugged, perhaps knowing that he would ultimately have the last laugh. Or, in this case, the last sociopathic non-reaction.
George continued his brilliant play in overtime, scoring eight points and assisting on the Pacers' only other basket. But his go-ahead free-throws with just 2.2 seconds left came as a result of a phantom foul by Dwyane Wade, who appeared to have barely grazed George on his desperation three.
Fittingly, that play was a broken one, too. George had nearly thrown the ball away on the inbound pass, forcing Hill to dive on the floor to retain possession. George ultimately came up with the ball and drew the "foul" on Wade, but things could have gone a bit more smoothly if he'd simply thrown a decent pass from the sideline.
It's hard to take anything away from Paul George, who buried three clutch foul shots to give his team the lead. But LeBron James simply wasn't going to let the Heat lose.
On a brilliant, floor-spacing play that featured all four Miami players fanning out to the corners at the moment James caught the inbound, LBJ blew by a slightly too-aggressive George and laid the ball softly off the backboard.
It certainly helped that Roy Hibbert wasn't on the floor for the play, but a somewhat curious rotation decision by Frank Vogel shouldn't detract from James' cold-blooded drive.
I'm making a point to compare some of the shakier circumstances of George's play down the stretch to James' icy, flawless finishing moves. But know this: George conducted himself with far more poise than we have a right to expect from a 23-year-old player. He battled James with confidence and aggression throughout the game. For proof, check out the action between the two stars, now with extra slow-motion goodness:
James was just better when it mattered most. Plus, he didn't even crack a smile or pump a fist when he iced the game.
Remember, though, that hasn't always been the case. James used to catch the same kind of flack (and much worse, actually) for his perceived inability to come through in the clutch. It's probably safe to say that he's past all that now.
The positive upshot of the Pacers' gut-wrenching loss is that they (and George, in particular) now believe they can compete with anyone. After all, they hung with the champs on the road in a hotly competitive Game 1.
The thought that should worry the Pacers, though, is this: LeBron James doesn't just believe he'll come through in the clutch these days. He knows it.