INDIANAPOLIS — The fourth quarter was about to begin Wednesday night, and if not for the already overwhelming din in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, you might have made out a ringing bell.
LeBron James was more than ready for this final round.
The four-time MVP broke the Miami Heat huddle early, bounced along the baseline toward the Heat's defensive basket, turned to the crowd, shrugged his shoulders and blew into his fists.
"Come on, let's go! Let's go!"
It looked as if the Heat were going to do some serious damage to the Pacers' collective psyche. Miami led by five, with a chance to pull into a tie in the loss column for the Eastern Conference lead. James was not going to allow head coach Erik Spoelstra to pull him now.
He had already scored 31 points—nearly half of Miami's output to that point—and he had done so on just 14 field-goal attempts, stashing his previous strategy of trying to go over and around the pugnacious Pacers.
Instead, he kept going at and through them.
Yes, even Roy Hibbert.
Just over three minutes into the quarter, James and Hibbert met again. It was an encounter that—if not definitively altering the outcome—will still hover over these teams until they scrap in Miami on April 11 and four to seven times in late May.
It will serve as the defining image of Indiana's rugged, razor-thin 84-83 victory. It was a win that likely means the Pacers, even after their late-winter stumble, will fulfill their season-long goal of ensuring that if there is a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals, that game will be played in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Heat did this largely to themselves, with a recent stretch of squandered chances to make up ground on Indiana and make Wednesday's game a bit less meaningful.
Instead, every decision was magnified, and every possession was pressurized. Hibbert had controlled the game early, scoring more points in the first seven minutes than in most of his full games in March, but Udonis Haslem had largely handled him thereafter.
He still loomed as a defensive presence and was planted in the paint when James caught a looping pass from a trapped Dwyane Wade in full sprint, bounced low with two hands, gathered, propelled himself forward and upward, shifted the ball high to his left hand and knocked Hibbert's chin with his right elbow.
Hibbert sprawled backward, holding his head as he hit the floor, rocking back and forth, and then wobbling as his teammates yanked him up.
Initially called a common foul, it was changed to a flagrant. Hibbert split his free throws, starting a streak of seven straight Pacers points, broken only when Lance Stephenson was ejected and Wade made a technical.
About 30 minutes later, after the Heat had surged back to a four-point lead, after James and Mario Chalmers had committed costly turnovers, after Evan Turner's nifty spin for a Pacers layup, after Wade's hamstring spasm rendered him a spectator, after David West made his fourth three-pointer of the season, after George Hill missed two free throws and after Spoelstra's self-described "gunslinger" choice of a Chris Bosh buzzer-beater backfired, James seethed deep in his locker, sore-nosed and sour, offering a series of short answers.
"It is what it is," he kept saying.
But eventually the restraint receded. He revealed plenty with limited language, whether his feelings about the play of Udonis Haslem and the long-shelved Rashard Lewis ("they need to be in the rotation") or his role as a passer in the final possession ("we just ran the play").
Then, when asked if he felt targeted when driving the lane, he paused for four seconds.
"I don't want to fall into the pit of what's going on," he said, before plunging. "Um, between me and Blake Griffin, we take some hard hits. And, you know, they call it how they call it. It's very frustrating, though. It's very frustrating. As a player, you play the game the right way and, uh, you know, sometimes..."
It was hard to make out what he said next. It wasn't hard, however, to hear his animated response when asked if the elbow to Hibbert was retaliation for two earlier fouls that he felt should have been flagrants—one by Ian Mahinmi in transition and one by Luis Scola that had bloodied his recently broken nose.
"Nah," James said. "I made a basketball jump. If I could jump in the air, elbow somebody in the face in the air and still try to finish the play, I'm gonna be a kung fu master or something. I mean, his face happened to hit my elbow."
Wrong place, wrong time? Intentional or inadvertent?
The league will likely review and rule on that.
And it will likely take note of Bosh's postgame comments, with the Heat center/forward declaring that "our guys are getting hit in the face, man. You know what I'm saying? They're getting punched in the face and clotheslined. And we get (just) two shots. And then we get an offensive foul and it's a flagrant.
"I guess we need to really decipher what flagrant means, because I don't feel they were going for the ball. Especially in those two situations. If you come down and clothesline somebody, it's open season. People are going to get hurt."
Bosh said that he could accept the flagrants if they were called evenly.
"But they had one, and we had none," Bosh said. "LeBron got punched in the face and clotheslined. I guess it was a play on the ball."
As Bosh sarcastically spit those words, there was no other noise in the losing locker room. Silence, stewing. Only later, after some of the media shuffled out, did Heat players start loudly spewing their anger, about the Wade three-pointer the officials wiped out, about Stephenson's ongoing antics, about repeated rough plays and perceived raw deals.
Other teams will take the Heat's place in that room over the next several weeks, but none will mutter quite like Miami. Few, if any, will have had as much at stake.
No matter now. It is what it is, as James so succinctly said. And as far as the race for the East's top seed goes, it was what it was.
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