By CLIFF BRUNT
We were all witnesses.
You remember the old Nike campaign for LeBron James? The one with the black T-shirts from back when he played for Cleveland?
Well, we were REALLY witnesses on Sunday. Witnesses to a playoff performance the likes of which many people who showed up at Bankers Life Fieldhouse will never again see.
Indiana was poised to take control of this Eastern Conference second-round series, and things looked promising early. The Pacers jumped out to a 9-0 lead. Miami didn’t even score for more than four minutes. It was all about Gold Swagger.
What followed was utter Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson-type dominance.
James dropped 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists on the home team. Miami 101, Indiana 93. Series tied 2-2.
The Heat are off life support.
Danny Granger put in a solid effort against James. He showed up and battled, as he always does. But the reigning MVP played one of the best games of his career in a game the Heat had to have. Win, and it’s an even series and you regain homecourt advantage. Lose, and you’re down 3-1. That deficit almost always means losing a series, and losing the series, any series, makes The Decision even more of a debacle.
It was simply one of the most important games of James’ career.
The Heat needed every bit of his greatness. Even with James rolling and Dwyane Wade morphing back into his old self, pesky Indiana hung around.
What James did was dynamic on multiple levels.
In the first half, James kept the Heat in the game while Wade struggled. James had 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting and had five rebounds and five assists.
In the third quarter, even as Wade went 6-for-6 from the field and scored 14 points, LeBron was right there with him. He scored 14 points and made 6 of 8 free throws.
He also drew Roy Hibbert’s third foul on a fast break layup. Six minutes later, Indiana’s 7-foot-2 center committed his fourth foul. Miami led just 64-63 when Hibbert left the game.
In the fourth quarter, James still scored seven points, but he was also content deferring to Wade and Udonis Haslem. James found another way to dominate. He had nine rebounds in the fourth quarter _ Indiana had seven as an entire team in the period.
“They killed us on the glass in Game 3, and I felt I had to be more aggressive on the defensive end and the offensive end as far as rebounding.”
James also played power forward and often guarded Indiana’s David West, Indiana’s bulky on-court leader. West had been Indiana’s leading scorer in the series, but he was in foul trouble throughout this game and finished with eight points and six rebounds on 3-for-8 shooting. James drew West’s third foul in the third quarter, then West quickly committed his fourth. James’ role in putting both West and Hibbert in foul trouble shouldn’t be overlooked because both sat the bench for the first half of the fourth quarter. By the time Indiana’s beef returned, Miami led 88-81.
Perhaps the most impressive thing was that it never looked like James was pressing. He was aggressive but never went beyond the framework of the team concept to get his numbers. He scored 40 points on 27 shots, yet never appeared to be gunning. He talked after the game about how important it was to get Wade good shots so he could be himself again. He said the team doesn’t win without Haslem. He never made the postgame press conference about himself, which would have been very easy to do.
“I felt like I had to do whatever it took for us to win,” he said. “I’m happy and I’m blessed to be able to do that and make plays for our team throughout the game.”
James may need to duplicate the effort for Miami to win the series. For now, no one can say he didn’t show up for a big game.
For the fans who left disappointed, try to remember who you are. You’re in Indiana. You just watched basketball greatness. And you treasure basketball greatness, in whatever form. Respect it. Remember it. Tell your grandkids about it someday.
Indeed, we were all witnesses.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl.