With the violent changes of direction Wednesday night's wild opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals threw at the defending champion Miami Heat, no one would have blamed them for scouring the sideline for the closest trash bin.
But Erik Spoelstra's players kept their heads (and lunches) in the right place, putting mind over matter after a deflating body blow that would have crippled most prize fighters.
The victory seemed a sure thing when the Indiana Pacers were forced to foul Ray Allen, a career 89.4 percent free-throw shooter, after a Paul George turnover appeared to thwart Indiana's comeback bid. Allen strutted out to the charity stripe with the chance to make it a two-possession game with just 17 seconds left in regulation, but the 17-year veteran managed only to split his two attempts.
Indiana nearly coughed up the ball on the ensuing possession, but Dwyane Wade was unable to secure a steal and was forced to throw the ball out of bounds. Gifted with a second life, the Pacers nearly squandered that opportunity, but George's desperation 32-footer somehow tickled the twine and sent this game into overtime, via the official Twitter feed of ESPN's SportsCenter:
Now that's CLUTCH! Paul George hits a three to tie the game 92-92 with 0.7 left. #SCtop10— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 23, 2013
In the extra session, the two teams traded baskets for 2.5 minutes, but George's driving and-1 layup gave the Pacers a 99-96 lead with 2:10 left on the clock. Following an empty possession for each team, Chris Bosh made the most of Miami's second offensive rebound of the trip, finishing through contact and converting the ensuing layup to knot the score at 99 with 49 seconds remaining.
After David West missed a jumper, LeBron James powered his way to a layup, giving Miami its first lead of the period with only 10 seconds left on the clock. Norris Cole swiped Indiana's sideline in-bounds pass, but the ball squirted out of his hands and the Pacers regained possession.
With precious seconds wasted, Indiana had to settle for another deep, contested three from George, but this shot missed its mark. A fateful blow of the referee's whistle changed everything, though, as Wade was called for a foul, his sixth, on George's long-range look, via Matt Mosley of Fox Sports Southwest:
I didn't think Kerr and Reggie made enough of the phantom foul on Wade. Actually, Reggie applauded the call based on consistency.— Matt Mosley (@mattmosley) May 23, 2013
George, a 23-year-old playing just his third season of professional hoops, blocked out the deafening roar of the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd and calmly dropped in all three of his free throws.
So Spoelstra was left with just 2.2 seconds to work his magic, but got an unlikely assist from his counterpart, Indiana coach Frank Vogel, who sat his best rim protector (Roy Hibbert) for the game's biggest possession.
An overzealous George closed too hard after James caught the pass near the left wing, and the MVP did what MVPs are supposed to do. One dribble took him from the left wing to the basket, and he took flight for a game-winning lefty layup.
Vogel got in trouble for overthinking the situation. The approach by Spoelstra and tremendous talents of James made it a simple execution for Miami, via Ethan J. Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post:
LeBron: "Once I got the ball, I was the only option. Especially w/ it being only 2-plus seconds."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 23, 2013
James shrugged off his game-winner, saying the actual play wasn't all that difficult even with the stakes at their highest, via Skolnick:
LeBron: "I just made a layup. I've been doing that since I was eight years old."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 23, 2013
But as a noted student of the game, it won't be long before he realizes the magnitude of his tremendous accomplishment, via the official Twitter feed of ESPN Stats & Info:
LeBron James is the first player in NBA postseason history with a triple-double and a buzzer-beater game-winner in the same game.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 23, 2013
He said he was going straight to the basket regardless of which five players Vogel had put out on the floor, and there's no telling if Hibbert's looming presence would have changed the final result (a 103-102 Miami win).
But one player clearly disagreed with the King's assessment, via Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star:
Hibbert on winning basket: "LeBron’s layup was one I think I could have gotten cause he served it up."— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNBA) May 23, 2013
And he wasn't in agreement with his coach's decision either, via Kristen Hewitt of SunSports:
Hibbert very vocal in lockeroom questioning why he wasn't in game for last play.— Kristen Hewitt (@kristenhewitt) May 23, 2013
While the Pacers are now left wondering about the one that got away, the rest of the basketball world is still trying to figure out what exactly they just watched.
Another seasoned veteran on Miami's roster, Shane Battier, did the best he could to make that a simpler task, putting that roller-coaster ride into the best context that he could, via Skolnick:
Shane Battier: "No way we should win this game, to no way we should lose this game, to what the hell just happened?"— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 23, 2013
Well, here's what just happened: Miami just climbed another rung on the 16-step ladder toward a successful title defense.