Forget about the "Big Three." For now, the Miami Heat are down to a "Big One."
And what a one LeBron James has been. With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh failing to provide the superstar support to which he'd become accustomed, James once again rose to the occasion in Game 5 as only he can—with a captivating flash of unbridled brilliance. In the third quarter alone, James outscored the Pacers by himself, 16-13, and had a hand in all but five of Miami's 30 points.
All told, LeBron piled up 30 points—his third 30-plus-point performance of this series—on a playoff-high 26 shots, along with eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block to propel the Heat to a crucial 90-79 win. Two nights after fouling out against the big, bad Pacers, LeBron limited himself to just one such infraction, which allowed him to play freely through the 44:29 he spent on the floor.
LeBron's latest display was eerily reminiscent of so many we'd seen from him during his lonely days with the Cleveland Cavaliers. James admitted as much after the game when asked about his post-halftime explosion (via Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated).
"I kind of just went back to my Cleveland days at that point and said, hey, let's try to make more plays and be more of a scoring threat as well, and try to figure out a way that I can—I don't know—see if the guys would follow me, and lead them the best way I could," James said.
He did so out of necessity. Wade and Bosh were all but missing in action for most of the night. Wade's 10 points (on 3-of-8 shooting) left him shy of the 20-point plateau for the 11th straight game, further extending the longest such stretch of his illustrious career, regular season or playoffs.
As for Bosh, he was twice blocked—once in emphatic fashion by Roy Hibbert—and scraped together just seven points (all in the first half) for the second consecutive outing. Not since his rookie season with the Toronto Raptors in 2003-04 had Bosh failed to hit double digits in back-to-back games.
Both Bosh and Wade have played far below par for most of these playoffs, though their contributions have dropped off a cliff since the start of the Eastern Conference Finals. Bosh, in particular, has averaged a mere 12.6 points (on 45.8-percent shooting) and 3.6 rebounds in five games opposite the Pacers.
According to NBA.com, the Heat outscored the opposition by 13.4 points per 100 possessions whenever the Big Three shared the floor during the regular season, and had upped that mark to plus-16.4 per 100 possessions through the first two rounds of these playoffs. However, against Indy, the Heat have been outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when James, Wade and Bosh have played together.
Granted, at least some of that disparity can be chalked up to a drastic improvement in the quality of competition. The Heat ran roughshod over a plethora of patsies during the regular season, and made quick work of the mediocre Milwaukee Bucks and the short-handed Chicago Bulls in Rounds 1 and 2, respectively, of the 2013 playoffs. These Pacers—with their combination of size, strength, length, health, defensive dominance and familiarity with Miami—are a different beast entirely.
But even that can't completely explain the collapse in contributions from Wade and Bosh. Wade's been battling through the lingering effects of a thrice-bruised right knee since mid-March, one that caused him to miss nine of Miami's final 14 regular-season games and the fourth of the Heat's first-round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks. The extensive rest had done Dwyane some good, though he's still far from 100 percent (via ESPN's Michael Wallace):
And has looked even worse than that opposite George Hill, Lance Stephenson and the rest of Indy's smothering defense. They've reduced D-Wade to an alarming shell of his former self—from a fearless attacker and trusty sidekick for LeBron to a feeble role player who's effective only in fits and spurts.
The Pacers have enjoyed similar success stifling Bosh. He's struggled to find any space—on the ground or in the air—on the interior against Indy's gigantic front line of Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George. They've swatted his shots, pushed him around and generally discouraged him from seeking out opportunities close to the basket.
As a result, Bosh has drifted out to the perimeter more frequently than ever before. He's taking twice as many threes per game in these playoffs (two) as he did during the 2012-13 regular season, when he established a new career high for three-point attempts, and has upped that number to 2.6 per contest against Indy.
It's all well and good that Chris has knocked them down at a 46.2-percent clip in the Eastern Conference Finals. But his residence on the perimeter throws the rest of the Heat's attack out of whack. As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry recently noted, Bosh's newfound affinity for the three means that he's giving up prime rebounding position in close (hence, the reduced numbers on the boards) against Indy's giants and that he's not filling the scoring gaps between Miami's shooters and slashers with his patented elbow jumpers.
His emergent sheepishness has also been exacerbated by injury. He tweaked his right ankle during the third quarter of Game 4 and seemed to be limited in his ability to leap and move around in Game 5 as a result.
Whatever the culprit for the cratering, it's still troubling that Bosh is starting to resemble a more talented, better-paid Drew Gooden. Couple that with Wade's descent into Larry Hughes territory, and the Heat could soon have a crisis on their hands.
Or would, rather, if not for the transcendent play of LeBron James. Unlike Kevin Durant—who got his first taste of singular superstardom with the Oklahoma City Thunder in these playoffs after Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury—James is intimately familiar with the perks and pitfalls of "flying solo." He did so for seven years in Cleveland before fleeing to South Beach, where he finally found some championship-caliber help.
Of which he still has plenty. The depth afforded by the likes of Mario Chalmers (12 points and six assists in Game 5), Udonis Haslem (16 points on 8-of-9 shooting), Chris Andersen (15-of-15 in the Eastern Conference Finals and 17-of-17 dating back to Game 5 against Chicago), Norris Cole and even the dilapidated duo of Ray Allen and Shane Battier beats the pants off that of any group that James dragged through the playoffs during his days as a Cavalier.
But that cast of characters won't likely be enough to lift LeBron back to the Promised Land without some semblance of superstar assistance. James and the Heat will need more out of Wade and Bosh if they're to close out the desperate Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Indy has beaten Miami three times in four tries this season.
Should the Heat advance to the Finals, they'll need an even bigger boost from the lesser two of the Big Three in competition with the longtime triumvirate of the San Antonio Spurs. The Western Conference champions will be as healthy and well-rested as they've been in some time, thanks to a nine-day layoff following their four-game sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies. Tony Parker is playing some of the best ball of his life, Tim Duncan looks like a man 10 years his junior, Manu Ginobili is still as dangerous a wild card as ever, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have delivered a dose of long-range shooting, defense and athleticism on the wings that hasn't been seen in some time in San Antonio.
In other words, the Spurs are firing on all cylinders with their best squad in years. That's bad news for the Heat, whose resemblance to those 2006-07 Cavs that were swept in the Finals is all the more cause for concern with the Spurs once again standing in the way.
(The previous encounter certainly didn't end well for LeBron. San Antonio ousted Cleveland in four games behind Tony Parker's Finals MVP performance.)
As magical as it may be for us to see LeBron channel his hometown heroism for any stretch, the fact that he's had to do so more often as this season has worn on doesn't bode well for Miami. He joined the Heat in 2010 not just to bolster his own legacy but to do so with the help of two of his closest confidants. He took a massive hit to his Q rating because he wanted to do what the best players in basketball have always done: win championships, as if by divine right.
LeBron will shoulder plenty of blame if these Heat fall flat at some point, though at least he won't be alone. Much of the onus rests with those who lured LeBron out of Ohio, chief among them Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, to once again reward James' faith in them and return the favor he did them with some stellar support of their own.
Clearly, Wade and Bosh don't need to dominate to the extent that their requisite talents would suggest they can. So long as they play with heart and hustle, so long as they find ways to chip in—even when the shots aren't falling, even when they suffocate under the defensive auspices of Indy and San Antonio—the Heat will have the upper hand. That much has been made clear in this series, in which Miami holds a 3-2 lead, despite seemingly cataclysmic declines from James' two partners in crime.
But if those two don't show up soon enough, they may well find themselves forfeiting a chance at a championship with LeBron now.
And, perhaps, jeopardizing their prospects of keeping him in Miami later.