MIAMI — When, on Wednesday, was it clear that this mattered?
That's when Mike Mancias, James' longtime trainer, paid a visit to try to expedite his recovery from a left ankle sprain, to get him ready for a regular-season game.
Yes, a regular-season game, no greater in importance than the one the Heat had downplayed eight days earlier, in Indianapolis, before and after a 90-84 loss. There they tried to make the NBA world understand that while they respected the Indiana Pacers as competitors, they wouldn't deem them equals on the basis of anything that occurred in the winter. They wouldn't deign to dignify this as a rivalry, nor put a similar premium on the pursuit of a No. 1 seed. That, after all, isn't what champions do.
Not when they've already done everything.
So, why then, was James doing everything he could to play Wednesday, resuming the rehabilitation after the shootaround, using every available minute to curtail the swelling and stem the pain?
Well, let him tell you.
"At the end of the day, this game right here, I couldn't see myself sitting it out," James said. "Even if I was playing at 60, 70 percent, I couldn't see myself sitting it out."
So yes, this 97-94 win mattered to Miami, irrespective of the month. It mattered because it means that they can quiet the Pacers' chatter for a while, if not the entire 98 day period until the teams meet again. It mattered because apparently the top seed does matter to them, or at least to James, who spoke of not wanting to fall "two games behind a team in the loss column." It mattered because they didn't want to disappoint their fans, who actually got into it, without P.A. assistance, in the fourth quarter.
But mostly, it mattered because, sometimes, even a champion needs to remind itself of its own capabilities.
"Early in the season, we haven't had many games like this, in the sense of the energy in the arena," Dwyane Wade said. "We like the bright lights."
They also like to "grind out" tough wins, to show that, as Wade put it, "we're a team that's been here before."
They just hadn't been given many chances to prove it since finishing off the Spurs last spring.
"The type of win we needed, and we wanted," James said.
They needed it, in part, because they've had so few opportunities to get it. This was just the Heat's sixth game this season against a team currently over .500—Miami has yet to face the Thunder, Spurs, Rockets or Trail Blazers. They have sleepwalked through long stretches and sometimes—against the 76ers, Celtics and Pistons—stumbled down the steps.
And they stumbled at the start of this one, even after James showed the stability of his ankle with two slams, and even after Roy Hibbert got removed from the paint, not because the Pacers center wasn't allowed to use the principle of "verticality," but because he ran over Shane Battier on the offensive end.
Miami trailed 52-41 at the half, and then 56-47 when James and Mario Chalmers had a miscommunication on defense and Paul George nailed a three-pointer. George would make another to push the Pacers lead to 63-49, and that's when, during a Heat timeout, Udonis Haslem had to push a furious James away from the beleaguered point guard.
And that's when the Heat made it plain to the public how much this mattered, a show of passion that's been absent for the start of this season. As they became more combustible, their earlier shows of ambivalence became less believable.
"Explosive conversation," Erik Spoelstra called it.
One that he welcomed. He called it "encouraging to see."
"I prefer that nature more often because our guys understand that it never crosses the line," Spoelstra said. "We have very aggressive type A personalities and they handled it."
Even if, as usual, Chalmers got the worst of it.
"It was one of the best, worst, no matter how you want to classify it," James said, when asked to rank his outbursts at Chalmers. "But that's my little brother, man, and it's all family. I was wrong, and I told him that, and we moved on. For me and Rio, we've been there before."
They have, but only when it matters.
They needed to channel their fury to something else: a rally. It came slowly at first, and then quickly.
There was the 22-13 run to close the third quarter, and a quick start to the fourth that gave James a chance to tie the game at 79 with a three. He missed. Soon after, he took a break.
With 6:11 left and the Heat down six, Spoelstra summoned him back into the action, telling him to replace Norris Cole. Throughout the past week, and after Wednesday's shootaround, the Pacers have touted stubbornness as a strength, their refusal to get away from their core lineups, their preference to make opponents match up to them. They are who they are. They do what they do.
That works for them. But Spoelstra has a different, less conventional roster. He must be more flexible. He must bend when required. This time, he bent back into the past, back to 2010-11, closing out with two bigs (Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen), removing his point guards and letting James and Wade run the show. This time, they were complemented by Ray Allen.
"I didn't know what we'd see," Spoelstra said. "There was no guarantee, and it just gave us a little bit more size."
"It's a really good lineup," James said. "I can see us doing that a little bit more. We haven't done that in a while. Especially against Indiana, some of the bigger teams, myself, Ray and D-Wade, and then have Bird and CB to defend and then rebound. We got some very, very key rebounds down the stretch as well."
They did, and they kept closing. Wade, who has averaged 27.7 points and shot 61.1 percent on the three-game homestand, dunked. Paul George and David West missed, George wildly and West from his sweet spot. Then Chris Bosh, who hadn't made a three-pointer in forever, fired.
"The one thing you can never contest about our guys, they are fearless," Spoelstra said. "No question about it."
Nor was there any question, after George missed again and James grabbed the rebound and passed to Allen, that the latter would connect from deep in transition.
"Everyone in the building knew that was going down," Wade said.
West's two free throws cut the lead to one, and Andersen missed a jumper.
The Pacers still had a chance.
Wade was up to the task as he defended George Hill, hounding him the entire way, fighting through a screen, forcing a poor pass to Paul George.
"Our big guys did a great job of calling the screen out," Wade said. "Just tried to use my height and my length a little bit."
After Allen made two free throws, the Pacers had one more chance. George forced an off-balance three-pointer.
"I thought it was a foul," George said. "I went into my shot, got pushed in the back."
"I didn't think so," James said. "I was trying to be very physical with him, I felt he was going to get the ball. No, I don't think so."
He made that play in his 36th minute, on an ankle he said was roughly 70 percent.
Yes, I think so.
"Obviously, we wanted this win, we wanted to get it," James said. "Actually, kind of sad we don't play for three months. This is a really, really good thing, going against these guys. They bring out the best in us, we try to bring out the best in them. You know, it's fun, it was fun the last eight days, while it lasted. And we can get on with the rest of our season now."
Starting with Sacramento on Friday. That won't matter so much.
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