INDIANAPOLIS — It all started innocently enough.
Five minutes and 48 seconds into the fifth game of the Eastern Conference finals, Paul George sprinted down the floor and split two Miami Heat defenders. One of those defenders was LeBron James, who reached back with his left hand. George lurched forward to the floor as the whistle blew, while James turned up his palms in disbelief.
That was one.
That was two.
That brought a bemused smile to James' face, plus a hearty roar from the crowd as he yanked out his mouthpiece and shook his head.
That would mean more than seven minutes on the sideline—seven of the 24 he would spend there on this night.
Half the game. Half of the Heat's 93-90 loss, a loss that sends this series back to South Florida with the Pacers trailing, 3-2.
"It was early enough in the first quarter," Erik Spoelstra said. "I just figured we'll get him back in the second quarter. It's a long game."
It would turn out to be a long, long night for LeBron James, among the most exasperating of his illustrious postseason career. He didn't foul out, as he did here last spring, in Game 4 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. But that's only because he spent so much of his evening being protected from peril, either off the court entirely or—in the game's final 10 minutes—off the Pacers' two most dangerous perimeter players.
He has never played fewer minutes in a playoff game than he did Wednesday.
He has never scored fewer points—just seven, on 2-of-10 shooting.
It's almost like he wasn't there at all.
"I picked up some early fouls," James calmly said later. "It's definitely something I'm not accustomed to."
Nor are the Heat.
Just two seasons ago, James went 254 minutes and seven seconds without getting called for a single foul.
Tuesday, he got called for two in his first 10 minutes before sitting down—if only figuratively, since he was often standing next to assistant coach David Fizdale, yelling instructions or encouragement to teammates, reduced to a champion cheerleader.
Those teammates actually handled his initial extended absence rather splendidly, outscoring the Pacers, 17-6, before James returned, only to get called for his third foul just 70 seconds later, for barreling into George on the offensive end. And with with him sitting the final six minutes of the half, the Heat took a 42-33 lead into halftime, with the Pacers trying too hard to force-feed Roy Hibbert.
Miami seemed primed to push the Pacers into the offseason, provided that James was present for his usual 20 to 24 minutes of the second half.
He wouldn't be.
He got called for a fourth foul just 31 seconds into the third quarter, when he touched Roy Hibbert to try to keep the Pacers center from a putback. And he got called for his fifth just three minutes later, in a scramble for a ball that Lance Stephenson had poked away from behind James' back.
The Heat led, 45-37, at that stage.
By quarter's end, it was 64-57 Indiana.
James started the fourth on the bench, but with the Heat struggling to start their offense—and giving up 34 points in a 10-minute span—Spoelstra couldn't wait any longer.
"I had to bring the guys back, and it went from there," he said.
It went well enough, even with James exceedingly cautious on defense and obviously rusty on offense, leaving two shots well short as his teammates converted them to baskets. Still, he was as relentless as he was ragged, and he finished a Heat flurry with a three-pointer to tie the game at 81.
It seemed that he might save the night, and save himself from suffering Stephenson's ear-blowing, huddle-breaking antics for the next several months. Spoelstra couldn't put him on Paul George, who scored eight points in the next two minutes. But, after missed free throws kept the Heat within a possession, the coach could put the ball in James' hands, to make a final play against George, starting with 12.8 seconds left.
"Just look for a cut initially, get some movement, and then he had an opportunity to attack," Spoelstra said. "He was able to get into the paint. Looked like he had some daylight. Hibbert was coming."
Hibbert was coming, to double—as Dwyane Wade calls him, "The Tree," who takes away clean looks at the hoop.
Chris Bosh was planting in James' line of sight, to provide an outlet.
"I saw C.B. in the corner in his sweet spot," James said.
"LeBron's the smartest player in this league, he's going to make the right play," George said. "He thought that was the right play."
It probably was, though we'll never know what would have happened had James made another—like going at Hibbert, and attempting a dunk or layup or floater.
We'll also never know if Bosh, with Hill closing and roughly seven seconds still remaining, could have passed out to late-game killer Ray Allen or even Rashard Lewis (who had made six three-pointers already), or what would have happened had the former Sonics spaced themselves out a bit more.
"My mentality is if there's one more pass, my feet were already starting to turn and (get) ready," Allen said.
"I asked Ray," Bosh said. "I said, 'Were you open?' He said, 'Yeah, (Hill) came off me.'"
Even so, even in retrospect, Bosh didn't believe there was enough time to make an extra calculation.
And in reviewing the replay, there didn't appear to be an especially safe passing angle either.
"Once he got it off, you have to live with what he saw and what we got," Allen said. "He had a good look at it."
Bosh thought so, too.
"Shoot, I thought it was in," Bosh said. "But I think every one is going in."
This one, though, drifted to the left, so it struck the front of the rim. Naturally, this struck some long-dormant nerves, among those who believe James should always shoot in these situations. But he is who he is in part because this is what he does. Two on the ball, hit the open guy. That's what Michael Jordan often did, feeding players like Paxson and Kerr for critical shots, though somehow some have suppressed those memories.
After the game, Hibbert said he was relieved that James gave it up.
"I mean, it's easy to say that after the fact," James said. "It's like playing cards, that's why they got backs on them. You don't know what's going to happen. For me, my teammates trust that I'm going to make the right play to help us win. And, win, lose or draw, you live with that. We got a great look. C.B. makes that shot, then we go, we get a stop, and we're heading to the Finals."
They're not—not yet—but James and the Heat still held their heads high after this loss. They didn't complain publicly about the whistles like the Pacers did after Game 4—James, who has at times chafed about officiating, took the highest of roads, stating that "the game is reffed by the refs. They ref how they see it. We play it, and you live with the results." But Heat players, on the side, spoke somewhat proudly about hanging close, in spite of the obvious adversity.
Then they headed to Miami, for Game 6.
The Pacers will see them there.
"We expect LeBron to be LeBron," George said.
That means more spectacular, less spectator.
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