Just as everyone was coming to terms with the idea that the Indiana Pacers were good enough to hang with the Miami Heat in a tightly contested Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James and Co. finally found their proverbial extra gear. The result was a decisive 114-96 Game 3 victory and the best top-to-bottom performance of Miami's 2013 playoff run.
It was as close to a perfect game as Miami has played all year.
James had a relatively quiet night from a statistical standpoint, finishing with "only" 22 points, four rebounds and three assists. But his dominant post performance against Paul George was a major key for the Heat. After spending the majority of the series handling the ball on the perimeter and at the elbows, LBJ went to work down low.
George didn't stand a chance.
James bullied George on the block, turning middle for jump hooks and spinning to his left for a flurry of easy lay-ins. Indy's general disdain for double-teams left George all alone on the much bigger James.
This was clearly a wrinkle for which the Pacers weren't prepared, and it was a big reason why the Heat put up a historically great offensive display in the first half.
Indiana was also probably surprised to see both of the other members of the Big Three show up at the same time. Throughout these playoffs, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have each played well in spurts but almost never in the same game.
Wade got to the rim for a couple of impressive finishes and ended his night with an efficient 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Bosh buried a pair of triples in the first quarter and needed only 10 shots (and 24 minutes) to get his 15 points.
More importantly, though, the Heat got contributions from their reserves for the first time in the series.
Udonis Haslem hit eight of his nine shots, with five of his makes coming from a nearly identical spot on the left baseline. When he went to the bench, Chris Andersen took his place. The Birdman substituted well-timed cuts to the hole in place of Haslem's jumpers, but the result was the same—Roy Hibbert couldn't move his feet well enough to protect the rim against Miami's drives and recover in time to stop Miami's bigs from scoring.
Overall, the Heat shot 55 percent from the field, 86 percent from the line and simply refused to give the ball away, with just five turnovers.
It's not as though the Pacers played poorly, either. Sure, they missed some open shots and really hurt themselves by clanking 14 free throws (30-of-44). But Miami's defense deserves credit for putting the clamps on down the stretch.
Postgame overreactions have been the hallmark of this back-and-forth series, so it'd be foolish to pronounce the Pacers dead after just one blowout. But now that we've seen what the Heat can do when they get production from everyone, it certainly feels like the Pacers are in trouble.
All year long, the Heat have coasted, playing only as well as they needed in order to win games. Everyone suspected there was another gear they'd been saving for a critical time.
We've now seen that gear.
Looking ahead, the next question is: Will the San Antonio Spurs—Miami's likely opponent if they make the NBA Finals—be able to measure up to the Heat when they're playing their best?
The Spurs actually do share many of the qualities that have helped make the Pacers such a tricky matchup for the Heat. They've got plenty of size up front in Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, and their wings (Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard) are, collectively, at least as defensively sound as Indiana's are.
But the Spurs also have a few things the Pacers lack: championship experience, three future Hall of Famers and the best coach on planet Earth in Gregg Popovich. Watching the Spurs dismantle the Grizzlies as they have certainly makes it seem as though San Antonio is at least as dangerous as the Pacers.
But here's the thing—if the Heat continue to get solid production from their reserves, sustained defensive effort from the entire roster and a dominant showing from a determined LeBron James, nobody stands a chance against them.