The Indiana Pacers punked the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. They pounded the Heat on the boards, dominated them in the paint and explored every option short of taxidermy to get under LeBron James' skin.
So naturally, Miami responded in Game 5 by playing a physical game with Indy. The Heat responded to the Pacers knocking them down in Game 4 the only way they knew how: they got up and pushed and shoved right back on the way to a 90-79 win.
Particularly in the second half. Indy had its way with the Heat physically in the opening 24 minutes. The front-court trio of Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert accounted for all but five of the Pacers' first 44 points. Those giants had their way in the paint and disrupted Miami's offensive flow, rejecting attempts by the hobbled duo of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to make a dent in the proceedings. In a semi-desperate attempt to contain Indy's size, Erik Spoelstra left Bosh and Chris Andersen on the floor for extended stretches.
Only to see the Birdman pick on Tyler Hansbrough, earning himself a technical foul and a flagrant foul in the process. That was about as physical as the lackadaisical, lethargic Heat got before halftime.
That led LeBron to rip into his teammates after leaving the locker room. He scolded them for their inexcusable effort (or lack thereof) in the swing game of a crucial series. He implored them to hustle, bump and bang as though their season was on the line, because it was.
And they obliged—or, at least, Udonis Haslem did. He made himself a threat in more ways than one coming out of the locker room. The South Florida native chipped in a pair of tide-turning buckets—including a thunderous dunk—before coming to Mario Chalmers' defense after the Heat guard went fishing for a fight with David West. Haslem finished the quarter with 10 points on a perfect 5-of-5 from the field.
He got plenty of help from LeBron, of course. James set up three of Haslem's baskets in the quarter.
In addition to the rest of the rampage that James unleashed upon the poor, unsuspecting Pacers. He punished them in the post and burned them in the mid-range. He went at George Hill and helped to land the Pacers' point guard in foul trouble, from which point Miami embarked on a 21-6 run to close the quarter.
By the end of the third, LeBron had outscored the Pacers by himself (16-13) and either scored or assisted on 25 of Miami's 30 points in the period. James finished the evening with 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in 44 minutes.
Perhaps the Pacers had crawled too far under LeBron's skin. Mayne James and company finally felt like they were in trouble and responded accordingly, as they always seem to do.
Whatever the case, even big, bad Indy couldn't stop Miami once the Heat established themselves as the more experienced bullies on the block. Miami got back to pestering the Pacers guards, to the point where George Hill and Lance Stephenson combined for as many turnovers as assists (six) and twice as many fouls (10) as points (five).
The Heat seemed to understand that they'll never be as tall, long or strong as the Pacers are across the board. They can't match the ridiculous length of Paul George, the bald-headed brawn of David West or the sheer mass of Roy Hibbert.
But that doesn't make Miami helpless. That doesn't mean the Heat have no choice but to surrender. Sure, they still have the talent to go toe-to-toe with their Central Division tormentors, even if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who combined to score 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting in Game 5, have hardly played up to their requisite superstardom.
Talent will only take you so far, though. The Heat learned that the hard way in 2011, when they fell flat against a rough-and-tumble Dallas Mavericks bunch in the NBA Finals. They saw that throughout Game 4 and again in the first half of Game 5, when sheer talent allowed the Heat to hang around, even when the run of play wasn't going their way.
However—to turn the tide, get over the hump and maximize that talent—the Heat had to do what so many champions before them (including themselves) had done: They had to ramp up the energy and play with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. They needed to approach the situation as if it were do-or-die, both physically and mentally.
Because in a way, it was. The last thing the Heat wanted or needed was to stave off elimination at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers had claimed three of four meetings against Miami, dating back to the regular season.
The stakes won't be any lower for the Heat heading into Game 6, even after pushing past the Pacers at AmericanAirlines Arena. The longer this series goes on, the more gassed Miami will be. It will also have a greater chance at elimination. The San Antonio Spurs, who long ago finished off the Memphis Grizzlies in four games, will be better rested for the finals.
In the meantime, the Heat can take heart in knowing that they can still overcome a quality opponent, even when the shots aren't falling and their Big Three has been reduced to a Big One. When push comes to shove, any player can impact a game with his physicality, regardless of pay grade.
And when the player leading the way is LeBron James, who's a force of nature unto himself—especially after being pestered into "Super Saiyan" mode by the pesky Pacers—then...well, it'd behoove everyone in the building to duck and cover.
Lest you get run over by a 6'8", 250-pound freight train who's charging toward a second Larry O'Brien Trophy.
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