For a while there, it looked like an ordinary effort from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade wouldn't be enough to give the Miami Heat a desperately needed win in Game 2 against the Indiana Pacers Tuesday night.
But then Miami's two stars left ordinary behind, using the fourth quarter to do what we so often talk about when it comes to the Heat: They flipped the switch.
The result was a 87-83 victory that showcased the vintage form of Miami's cornerstone stars in a stirring closing run. Thanks to James and Wade's finishing surge, the Heat leave Indiana with the split they needed.
A Slow Start and a Game Opponent
Things were dicey for the Heat in the early going, as the Pacers came out with loads of confidence.
Indiana went up by as many as eight points in the opening period—a significant figure in a game where a slow pace and a congested lane meant buckets would be much harder to come by than they'd been in the surprisingly high-scoring first game of the series.
On the strength of a balanced attack, the Pacers outplayed Miami early. All five Indiana starters scored in the first period, Roy Hibbert dominated on the offensive glass and Lance Stephenson looked particularly confident—even by his own irrationally self-assured standards.
Most alarmingly (from Miami's perspective), the Pacers were moving the ball beautifully on offense.
Compounding the issue, James got off to a start that might be best described as "sleepy." He dozed off during the first quarter, allowing Stephenson to cut toward the bucket for an easy layup. James' ball-watching continued, and he allowed C.J. Watson to slip past him for a similar attack later in the game.
At the earliest stages of the contest, it was clear Miami would need a big boost from its stars because the Pacers weren't going to let up. But based on the way the Heat—and James in particular—started off, it didn't seem like any such boost would be forthcoming.
A Little Help
Before we go into the finishing push from James and Wade, we have to pay homage to a couple of key role players who kept the Heat in the game long enough for the big guns to finally take over.
Norris Cole switched onto Stephenson in the second half, and despite disadvantages in the size and strength departments, he effectively harassed Indy's aggressive wing. Hunkering down, Cole made every move a chore for Stephenson.
Although he still finished with 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds, Stephenson was clearly bothered by Cole's pressure. And Miami's reserve guard tossed in 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting for good measure.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra got plenty of praise for using Cole in a somewhat surprising fashion.
Funny enough, Cole gave somebody else the credit for the matchup tweak that paid such huge dividends after halftime.
Spolestra said after the game that the Cole switch was his idea, so it's hard to know where the idea came from originally. Either way, crediting James was a smart move by Cole. He knows where his bread is buttered.
Chris Andersen gave the Heat an effort just as critical as Cole's, playing alongside Chris Bosh in a conventional frontcourt alignment much more than he did in Game 1. That was probably another smart move by Spoelstra, but let's not be surprised if Birdman credits LBJ for that adjustment, too.
With 12 rebounds in 29 minutes, Andersen gave the Heat the energy, size and production they needed to match the Pacers up front. You can't always trust plus/minus figures from a single game, but Birdman's game-high plus-25 feels just about right.
The Turning Point
It was anybody's game in the fourth quarter, with the Pacers actually taking a four-point lead with about seven minutes remaining.
But that's when James and Wade took things over. And it was something to see. LBJ finished with 22 points, while Wade tossed in 23 on the night. But it was really the timing of their scoring that mattered most.
Miami's defense ratcheted up, giving the Heat the kind of disruptive spark that makes them so great. It's worth noting, too, that said spark had been missing for most of the regular season and had made only cameo appearances in these playoffs.
Better late than never, though, as Miami's scrambling, high-pressure defense stymied Indiana's offense and led to scoring chances on the other end.
James and Wade combined to generate all of the Heat's offense down the stretch—no, seriously, all of it.
The numbers were ridiculous, and even the lone bucket not scored by James or Wade—a triple by Cole at the 10:45 mark of the period—was assisted by James.
That offensive takeover was all the more impressive when you consider the opponent. Maybe you've heard: The Pacers can play a little bit of defense, and they're notorious for stifling stars.
That wasn't how it went down in Game 2, though. There would be no stifling of James and Wade. This was a "we won't be denied" performance—exactly the kind you hope to see from transcendent talents in the biggest moments.
Please note the preceding sentence does not apply to Pacers fans. I'm guessing that was not the kind of performance they were hoping to see.
Keep It Simple
We have a tendency to overcomplicate things when analyzing NBA games—especially those of the postseason variety.
And while it's true there was some nuance involved in Game 2, we don't need to dig much deeper than this: Two future Hall of Fame players completely took over the game when their team needed them to.
We shouldn't be surprised James and Wade did what they did, and we should probably expect them to do it again before this series ends.
Miami will always have issues with the reliability of its bench, and the Pacers absolutely played well enough to win this game. But as long as Wade and James are breathing, the Heat will always have a chance to overcome their own limitations and snuff out the hopes of worthy opponents.
In that sense, we've been wrong about something all year. Miami's extra gear isn't a teamwide thing. Its proverbial switch doesn't apply to the entire roster.
Gears, switches...whatever—the Heat play their best, seemingly unbeatable basketball when James and Wade go all "superhero" for long stretches.
Understanding what makes Miami great is simple. As the Pacers just found out, though, stopping it isn't.
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