CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Norris Cole bounced through the tunnel, beaming brightly, looking none the wearier for his 29 minutes.
"Next challenge: close out!"
The man a few steps in front of him didn't look back, or stop moving, while offering his opinion.
"Yes sir!" LeBron James yelled out.
Count that as just another affirmation on an evening of them for the Miami Heat.
Sure, the Charlotte Bobcats are overmatched, even with Al Jefferson gallantly gutting it out, scoring 15 points in his first 12 minutes before recording just five in his next 18. But Miami had played plenty of meek opponents in the final two months of the season, and not shown the sort of offensive discipline and defensive intensity that it did Saturday night. Now, after an easy 98-85 victory, the Heat are one Monday win away from sitting for five to seven days before starting the second round.
"Yeah, we like rest," Chris Bosh said, smiling.
That's why they can't let down Monday, and stretch this series any longer than necessary. In the first two postseasons after the Big Three joined forces, the Heat jumped out 3-0 in the first round, before losing Game 4 to Philadelphia and then New York, respectively. Last April, James spoke of the need for greater maturity, and even with Dwyane Wade sitting Game 4, Miami closed out Milwaukee.
Wade scoffed at any suggestion that he sit on Monday ("why would I need to?"). And while he was solid enough on Saturday, getting in a groove after an 0-of-4 start, and the bench was exceptional (with the newly self-anointed Chris "Birdzilla" Andersen contributing 12 points and seven rebounds), James was the primary story.
During it, he unleashed his fury on another owner, Michael Jordan, even if less directly. Jordan, dressed in white and sitting a row behind the Bobcats bench, spent much of the second and third quarters folding his arms or clasping his hands under his chin. Halfway through the fourth quarter, he vanished from view.
By then, James had done all of his meaningful damage, varying his methods of destruction on his way to 30 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. In the first quarter, he had seven points and four rebounds. In the second, he returned from a break with the Heat trailing by two, and scored six points with three assists to put Miami ahead by seven.
He made two free throws with 3.3 seconds left.
Then he made a play that spoke to his anticipation and athleticism.
"We had been allowing a lot of shots to go at the end of quarters," James said. "So I told Bird when I was at the free throw to shadow their point guard and kind of get the ball in someone else's hands. And he was able to force it into Gerald Henderson's hands. And I heard, I believe it was Gary Neal who was kind of calling for the ball on the weak side, and I knew he had leaped out to the opposite side."
He swiped the ball, rose up, and got fouled by Henderson.
"I was able to get some free throws," James said.
Three of them, all of which he made.
"It was a big momentum push for us, pushed the lead to 12," James said.
And, unlike in Game 2—and in so many other games this season—he and the Heat did not stop pushing. The lead swelled to 26 in the third quarter, as James showed off his repertoire: whipping a perfect baseline bounce pass, sinking a turnaround jumper, one-touching a layup over his head, and finishing the frame by crouching deeply on the follow-through of a silky 17-footer.
But, afterwards, few were as interested in any of that as they were in one of his sideways glances. You see, it did seem that, he snuck a peek at Jordan as he rose to slam in transition, and then peeked back that way after he landed. Here's the play:
There was no "yes, sir" this time.
"Nah, don't start that," James said. "Absolutely not."
When that's the only storyline left, it's time to finish a series.